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Share a Game is an RPG Geek initiative in which knowledgeable users volunteer to spend a week hosting a thread about a particular game and answer any questions about that game. This thread will have a week in the spotlight, but will always remain active if you stumble across it later.

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Torchbearer

With foes ahead, behind us dread,
Beneath the sky shall be our bed,
Until at last our toil be passed,
Our journey done, our errand sped.

~"Over the Misty Mountains Cold", J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Hobbit

Torchbearer is an intensive dungeon-delving game from Thor Olavsrud, editor for Burning Wheel, with assistance from Luke Crane, who himself made a name by designing Burning Wheel.


Quote:
"Adventurer is a dirty word. You’re a scoundrel,
a villain, a wastrel, a vagabond, a criminal, a
sword-for-hire, cutthroat. Respectable people
belong to guilds, the church or are born into
nobility. Or barring all that, they’re salt of
the earth and till the land for the rest of us.
Your problem is that you’re none of that."


The Roots of Torchbearer
Thor originally conceived Torchbearer as a hack of Mouse Guard, tightened and tuned to provide a very different experience. Mouse Guard's influence on the design of Torchbearer is very clear (most notably in the bits where both games focus on putting pressure on the characters by wearing them down), but Torchbearer tackles an iconic touchstone in gaming: the dungeon delve. It has no illusions about what it is: a tough, crunchy challenge that sees characterization emerge out of high-pressure situations.

There's nothing like a room slowly filling with debilitating gas to bring out the best in you.

The Design of Torchbearer
The evolution of Torchbearer is very apparent as you examine the mechanics. This is a game that is rooted in its system, and that system has a lot going on. You can catch the glimpses of Mouse Guard as you look, but everything has been tightened, sharpened, and toughened up. If Mouse Guard was Adventuring 101, this would definitely be Adventuring 201. There's levers, timers, and lots of cogs that come together into a whole that takes some play experience to grasp. I'll try and break it down into its components.

Characters
In Torchbearer, characters are mostly defined by their Skills. When you want to do something, roll a skill. If you don't have the skill, you roll one of two base attributes: Health (for physical things) or Will (for mental things). Though, if you don't have the skill, you roll half of the related attribute. All-told, this generally means that you throw 3-4 dice at a challenge in the dungeon.

A Sample Character wrote:

Beren of Carcaroth
Stock: Dwarf
Class: Adventurer
Home: Religious Bastion

Parents: Orphan
Friend: Trinit the Scholar
Enemy: Fark the Cleric

Abilities: Will 3, Health 5, Nature 5
Circles: 3
Resources: 0
Nature Descriptors: Delving, Crafting,
Avenging a Grudge

Skills: Fighter 4, Dungeoneer 3,
Manipulator 3, Orator 2, Laborer 2, Armorer 2,
Scholar 2, Scout 2
Wises: Shrewd Appraisal-wise, Lying-wise
Traits: Born of Earth and Stone (1), Scarred (1)

Unfortunately, those skills aren't very high. Against most reasonable obstacles in the dungeon, you face about a 50% chance of failure. You have a few ways to mitigate that, though, such as Traits. Traits showcase unique aspects of your character, like Foolhardy, Stoic, or Adventurous. You can use them for small (but important) die boosts during the session.

Each character also gains access to "Wises": specialized areas of knowledge that let you play a few tricks with the dice, like rerolling a die that failed.


Quote:
For instance, the descriptors
for Halfling Nature are these:
Sneaking, Riddling, Merrymaking.

When a Halfling does one of these,
they can roll Nature instead of their
skill.

Finally, every character has a Nature: a core reserve of strength tied to their stock, whether that be Human, Elven, Halfing, or Dwarven. A Nature has "descriptors" which explain what it means to have it. When you're doing one of those things, you can use your Nature instead of a skill. If you keep your Nature high, this means you can sometimes coast through what would be a massive challenge.

A character is made up of advantages, so that they stand some chance of defeating the challenges that the Gamemaster throws at them. These advantages also help to give them personality and distinctiveness.

Conditions
Conditions are what a character accumulates as they adventure through the dungeon. Failing tests and taking too long in the dungeon are both ways to acquire conditions, and they're unpleasant. (If you're familiar with Mouse Guard, those conditions are nice and happy compared to these ones.) By the time you've marked off every condition, you've lost half of your dice on any given roll, you automatically get an increased difficulty for every Obstacle you face, and you can't use those nifty Wises. This generally spells certain defeat.

In case that wasn't enough, the final condition is "Dead". If you have to mark off a condition, and that's the only one left...too bad for you.

Conditions are the most substantial pressure in the game; they hamper your character's ability to overcome challenges, and they're a countdown timer to disaster. I've found that most delves are a race to beat the clock: how much ill-gotten wealth can you salvage before your conditions start dropping in on you? Can you make it out of the dungeon before you collapse? Speaking of time...

Turns
Torchbearer uses abstract time, and calls it "turns". When you make a roll, that uses up a turn. Aside from a few exceptions, that's how the rules work; it's a simple abstraction that turns time from a nuisance into another threat. Two very important things key off of turns, you see...

Light is one of those things. Each light source has a lifespan of turns. A candle gives a single character four turns of light. A lantern gives three characters three turns of light. If you're in a dark place, the Obstacle to do anything increases. You need light to stave off the darkness.

The Grind is the other thing. Every four turns, you gain a condition, starting with the milder ones and working your way up. This includes that pesky "Dead" condition, if you don't have any other conditions left. This is the only game that I know of where you can literally die from exhaustion in the middle of a dungeon!

Resources
You may have noticed that a lot of Torchbearer revolves around scarcity. Wealth is the most blatant example of this: each character starts out broke. In Torchbearer, the only way to make money is literally to spend money, and you have to hack your way forward with the loot that you bring out of the dungeons. That's right, there was a reason to go dungeon-delving after all! The more loot you pull out, the more things you can spend it on.

Things like, um, mostly recovering from those Conditions you acquired in the dungeon, or researching potential dungeons to find out what traps and treasure they hold, or making friends with the guilds in the town. Unfortunately, you can only do so much, and when your coin runs out, it's time to go back into the depths for more!

But at least you can pull out a mighty haul of treasure, right...?

Inventory
Ah, yes. There's an inventory system. I can hear your involuntary groans. Except...it works. Torchbearer abstracts inventory into a number of "slots". Partially space, partially weight, a "slot" simply means "you can carry stuff here". Of course, most loot takes up a few slots on its own. And you never seem to have enough slots. How exactly were you planning on carrying your torch, two sacks of treasure, and climbing up the rope to get out of the dungeon?

But hey, if you can make it out with everything, more power to you!

How Torchbearer Plays
Quote:

It's more of a slow, agonizing doom
that coalesces above you. You need
to pull together as a team, plan ahead,
and be strategic if you want to make it
out alive.

As you've gathered, Torchbearer is a rough game. Your characters keep getting worn down again and again. To me, though, that's one of the features of the game. It's very deliberately paced, and it's not as much of a deathtrap as you might think. It's more of a slow, agonizing doom that coalesces above you. You need to pull together as a team, plan ahead, and be strategic if you want to make it out alive...and with treasure.

Characters advance...slowly. There's a leveling-up system that lets you unlock new character features, but the real meat of advancement is in skill increases: you can only increase a skill by testing it. (You need to get a certain number of successes and failures before you can learn enough to get better.) This happens gradually, and you can watch your character blossoming into competency as you put them into peril and challenge their abilities. (If they survive.)

And as for the core of any RPG, the characters? Surprisingly present! Character development is an emergent feature of this game: as your characters are put under pressure, you find great opportunities to let them shine, and to have great moments. One of the best memories that came out of our Torchbearer game was when my Elf companion and my Dwarf fell into a pit trap with a zombie. The Elf held off the zombie to give me enough space to breathe, and I boldly ventured forth, committed to carrying on his memory.

Of course, it was the tomb of a Wight, so that didn't end too well, but it was still an epic last stand. Them's the breaks.

This is a game that, through adversity, inspires thrilling heroics, hard choices, and invites you to bring your character to life in small ways, in the midst of hardship. Traits are outlets for character color, your Nature drives you forward in hard spots, and even your skills say a lot about your character. This is the first game I've played where cooking is essential!

(If I were feeling poetic, I'd have some trite metaphor about coals and diamonds. Fill in the blanks with your imagination. )

The Highlights Reel!
So, what are the highlights of this game?

It's tight. The game is far more integrated than Mouse Guard, with a plethora of mechanics that reinforce and play off of one another. This means that there's a bit of a learning curve, but the payoff is fantastic.

It's one of the few games I've seen that successfully evokes a sense of pressure. The odds are stacked against you, but not right away. Instead, the difficulty starts trickling up. It starts to get insanely difficult once you're deep inside the dungeon, possibly trapped.

That high difficulty means that you're willing to try the most desperate of plans to get out. And that is the stuff legends are made of.

It's a meaty game. There's a lot of mechanical systems to master, and the mastery is almost entirely focused on gameplay, and not on character creation. Playing is learning. (And that also means character creation is incredibly fast!

Over To You...
My goodness, that was a lot. I hope that wasn't overwhelming! There's a lot of substance in the game that I haven't touched on here, but I'm open to questions and clarifications!

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What's the best way to teach Torchbearer to a table of n00bs who have no experience with the BW family of games, and are generally much more used to games without such strict rules practices?
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dysjunct wrote:
What's the best way to teach Torchbearer to a table of n00bs who,have no experience with the BW family of games, and are generally much more used to games without such strict rules practices?
Qualifier: I have no personal experience teaching Torchbearer to newbies, so this is mostly conjecture. I'm also going to jump straight into a lot of rules details.

~~~

Personally, I think there is a way to gradually introduce the rules elements. You just have to make sure that they're aware of how it'll eventually come together.

If you start with just the Skills, the Grind, and Conditions, you can get them used to the general rhythm of a dungeon. Mind you, most of the conditions won't do much, since they're not using Wises or making Beginner's Luck tests. But you should hand those conditions out to reinforce the narrative. Even if there's no mechanical impact, telling them that their character has the Angry condition will help to reinforce the story of the delve. Inventory slots should also be fairly easy to explain. "You can only carry so much with you; each thing takes up one slot, except for some things that are extra big."

After that, you could introduce the rules for light sources, add in Traits, Wises, and Nature. With that set out, they have ways to one-up the challenges that you should now be throwing at them. So maybe make that the second session? This doesn't include advancement so far.

Advancing skills (and learning new ones) should come up in the third session, then, along with the conflict system. Pretty much all of the dungeon stuff should be in full force at this point. Leave Town for the fourth session, and tie up the loose ends that I'm overlooking.

Of course, I would introduce the Belief, Instinct, and Goal from the get-go. It makes for a great common thread, even if I save artha for partaway through the four initial sessions. Just having those written down on the sheet can help give them a direction for their characters.

~~~

So...I guess that's a four-session plan to ease them into Torchbearer proper? It'll require some easy dungeons at first, because they start out not having their greatest strengths available.
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Paolo Robino
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Thanks for Sharing a Game!

You say the game is tight for the players. Does the GM face similar types of constraints, or can the GM throw anything at the players, unrestrained by rules? To put in in another way: do the rules put some restriction on what the GM can use to challenge the players?

Also, regarding the game being rough: how rough is rough? Can it be perceived as so rough it is frustrating, discouraging the players to take the challenge on?
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Andrew Hauge
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Good questions!

First up: GM constraints
The game actually does have constraints for the GM. Now, they have flexibility when it comes to challenges (there's no such thing as an encounter "budget", such as in 4E), but a lot of their action is tied to the player-driven success/failure cycle.

Here's what it looks like from a GM's perspective.

1. Before the session, the GM preps a dungeon. The game has plenty of suggestions along this front, helping the GM to think through the history of the dungeon, the reason why it exists, and how the ecosystem of the dungeon works. It's supposed to be filled with challenges to push the characters, and the game encourages a philosophy of "challenge them to watch the characters grow" over "challenge them to destroy them".
2. During the session, the GM honestly describes what the players encounter, and what they need to roll to overcome various challenges. Obstacles are actually strongly governed by guidelines in the GM's section of the book. Every skill has a number of common dungeoneering tasks listed under it, escalating in difficulty. It's very easy to calculate how difficult a number of things are.
3. When the players fail a roll, the GM can either let them succeed, giving them a condition as a compromise, or the GM can let them fail, and introduce a "twist" (i.e., "something goes wrong", such as a wandering monster). The game lists several examples of twists, all of which have to draw on the dungeon itself. You're supposed to draw all complications from the dungeon as it exists.
4. Some parts of the game involve random tables, such as the "Camp Events" table that you have to roll on when the party makes camp. They're pretty detailed, and they're another cool little feature of the game.

I guess what it comes down to is: "The GM prepares a location, and then must present it honestly to the players." No challenges out of nowhere or improvised on the spot, and the rules are very clear about when the GM can give conditions to characters or introduce bad events.

Next question: Difficulty
As a caveat, I played with a two-player party. This has been called "hard mode" by Thor.

We never made it back out unscathed, and often left a dungeon with only one or two conditions unmarked. The fewer players in the party, the harder it is. (Two players is very difficult; six is the recommended maximum.) The game slowly grinds the characters down, and I think that's one of the reasons the challenge works: the start of the dungeon is often easy, especially because every character who doesn't have conditions will get a small bonus for being "Fresh". The players definitely have to be willing to face a challenge, though, and to accept that things are going to go south for their characters. There's generally a tipping point where things start escalating quickly--at which point you need to get out.

That said, players get a large amount of options to mitigate the difficulty. Besides Traits, Nature, and Wises, one of the most ubiquitous rules is "helping". When you help someone, you give them an extra die, in exchange for sharing the consequence of failure. (So if they fail the roll and get given a condition, you get the condition too.) Helping is the single-best way to overcome most of the obstacles in a dungeon.

(Though as a tangent: with more players, you get a lot more helping dice...but each player rolls fewer tests. This means that you don't get to test your skills as much, which means they don't advance as quickly. A smaller party has a rougher time of it, but they learn things faster.)

I definitely think that it requires a particular level of buy-in. The ideal group of players for this game is a group who will look at their conditions, their dwindling light, and at the dungeon, and say "Is that the best you've got???" (Or at least a group that'll look at all that, grab the nearest loot, and race for the exit.)

Overall, though, the status quo seems to be this: your characters will survive, they will probably hang around and not go into debt, and they'll scrape along as they increase in might. Some deaths will happen, but characters will live and grow.
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Eric Jome
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How does the game handle magical powers, items, and encounters? Is this low fantasy or high fantasy? Are there guidelines for adapting play to other tastes?
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How long does character generation take? How much preparation does the GM need to do before you can play?
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cosine wrote:
How does the game handle magical powers, items, and encounters? Is this low fantasy or high fantasy? Are there guidelines for adapting play to other tastes?
I knew I'd forgotten something.

The game is very strongly low fantasy, in my estimation. There are some classes with access to magic, but that magic expends quickly. These wizards are wizards with a handful of spells, a very limited resource in the delve, for instance. So while your magic-users can save the day a few times, they have to pull their weight in other ways during the delve.

Magic items are rare but give you a good edge. The GM has loot guidelines, but I suppose a GM could make them a lot more common if desired.

Adapting the game to other tastes would definitely be difficult. The book itself doesn't offer advice on that. I actually did play with a GM who took the game to a mythic-level scope, mainly by putting our characters into grand-scope situations and houseruling in appropriate capabilities. The game somewhat supported it.

I'm not sure what's meant by "magical encounters", unless I misread you? Encounters in general happen as setpieces, and follow a similar pattern to Mouse Guard's scripted conflicts. There's a number of conflict types in Torchbearer: Riddle, Chase, Fight, Trick, and so on. There's even a conflict that you use when you're trying to banish a supernatural creature, like a demon.

EDIT:
Chargen is remarkably fast. You answer a few questions, and that gives you your character. Most of the work is already done when you pick a starting character stock. The longest bit of character creation is figuring out what gear to bring (gear is literally "whatever you can fit on your person").

GM prep is necessary. Very necessary. The GM sets out a dungeon beforehand, for the players to explore. That said, GM prep doesn't involve preparing encounters; it's about creating an environment to pressure and challenge the players. It's something like "there's a few main branches from the entrance; a boulder is blocking one of them", going on to figure out where the branches go and what the rooms of the dungeon look like. When the players show up, and tell you what they want to do about it, you figure out how difficult that is.

(I'll be finding a way to edit some of that into the main post.)
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CarpeGuitarrem wrote:
I'm not sure what's meant by "magical encounters", unless I misread you?
How are monsters meaningfully different from one another? Do monsters or traps include magical effects, like charming the heroes or flying or breathing fire? Are there suggestions on how to handle poison, acid, or lack of air? How is swimming a fast flowing river different from trekking through a desert?

Quote:
There's even a conflict that you use when you're trying to banish a supernatural creature, like a demon.
This would count then as special rules for magical encounters.
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Andrew Hauge
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cosine wrote:
CarpeGuitarrem wrote:
I'm not sure what's meant by "magical encounters", unless I misread you?
How are monsters meaningfully different from one another? Do monsters or traps include magical effects, like charming the heroes or flying or breathing fire? Are there suggestions on how to handle poison, acid, or lack of air? How is swimming a fast flowing river different from trekking through a desert?

Quote:
There's even a conflict that you use when you're trying to banish a supernatural creature, like a demon.
This would count then as special rules for magical encounters.
Ah, that makes sense. In the case of a banishing encounter (or whatever it's called, I'll check when I get back to the book), it completely changes the skills that characters are able to use in the conflict. It also limits the "weapons" that you can bring to bear in the situation.

I'll be back later with a clearer answer on the supernatural bits of monsters and whatnot, but there's some nicely-differentiated monsters in the bestiary.
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Re: Monsters. The book has a lot of the standard types, but there's two free PDFs of monsters, with art by David E. Petersen of Mouse Guard:

- The Petersen Bestiary Volume 1 (DriveThru link)
- The Petersen Bestiary Volume 2

That should give you a basic taste of how the monsters are mechanically differentiated.

Back to Andrew....
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cosine wrote:
How long does character generation take? How much preparation does the GM need to do before you can play?
First character - 10-30 minutes. Later ones, as low as 3-5 minutes, assuming photocopied/printed-off character sheets.

I've got TB, but haven't run it.
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Great article! This seems like a really intriguing game! I may have to look at this, some time.
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aramis wrote:
cosine wrote:
How long does character generation take? How much preparation does the GM need to do before you can play?
First character - 10-30 minutes. Later ones, as low as 3-5 minutes, assuming photocopied/printed-off character sheets.
Yeah, I can confirm this. Character creation is straightforward and procedural, and that gear-choosing time I talked about? Really gets cut down, now that I think about it, when you've been delving. You have a much better sense for how the delve works.

Monsters, though! And other goodies.

My experience with Torchbearer is based on a 12(?) session story that I played two characters in; I didn't get much of a look at the bestiary, because I didn't feel so inclined.

One of the most important bits of a monster, though, is its Might; any creature is capable of attempting to kill another creature that's beneath it on the Might scale...but the higher in Might another creature is, the more limited your options are. Big beasties can only be driven off.

Each monster also has an Instinct (like in Burning Wheel): this informs the GM of its behaviors and characterization, and serves as a nice fallback.

Finally, monsters generally have a unique rule attached to them. Bugbears don't make noise when moving through the woods. Goblins and Orcs take a penalty in the sunlight but can see in the dark. A Wererat can infect a character with its curse; if you don't remove it in time, the character becomes a Wererat, and leaves the player's control. A character slain by a Barrow Wight becomes a Barrow Wight during the next night. (There's a number of other special abilities for monsters.)

Oh--and monsters also have different levels of "hitpoints" (the game uses the term "Disposition", but it's the same concept) for different types of conflicts. e.g., a conflict where you flee from a goblin starts with them at 2 Disposition, where a conflict where you try to kill a goblin starts with them at 6 Disposition. Each of them are stronger or weaker against certain types of conflict--although each type of conflict also has a different end result. That's a key differentiator.

To answer some of the other questions upthread...

There's a few traps that include poison; they require the character to make a successful Health roll to endure it. If they fail that test, then it's up to the GM's judgement to give them a condition (such as Sick) or a twist (such as "you are paralyzed by the poison"); in that respect, it's like any other test. The game requires the GM to be a referee in that regard: by giving out twists or conditions that make sense for the story, and by assigning appropriate difficulties when the players explain what they want to do.

The difference, say, between crossing a swift stream and surviving an arid desert would be in the skills required and the twists/conditions applied on failure. I'd expect players to potentially lose gear if they failed a roll to cross the stream, and it'd make sense to hand out the Exhausted condition when they fail a test to navigate the desert.
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How necessary are the Player Decks? Would it be practical to just write conditions and items on small cards as the adventurer's obtain them?
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TwentySides wrote:
How necessary are the Player Decks? Would it be practical to just write conditions and items on small cards as the adventurer's obtain them?
You can play without decks.
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TwentySides wrote:
How necessary are the Player Decks? Would it be practical to just write conditions and items on small cards as the adventurer's obtain them?
There's actually spaces set out on the character sheet to do that already. The Player Decks are just a nice tool. The one thing they help the most with is conflicts: you can choose your actions by laying cards facedown. It's a lot niftier to have physical cards to do that with.

Oh, and that reminds me! As with all the games they release, the crew has packed the character sheets with helpful information and references. They do a stellar job of putting important rules reminders on the sheet so that you don't have to remember.

See for yourself! (this is the back of the sheet)
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I decided to pick it up.

I'm very impressed. I know a fair amount about Burning Wheel, but little of Mouse Guard. This presentation is head and shoulders better than BW - a much better, much nicer approach to the game. No snark. No platitudes. Plain spoken. Clear.

I'm looking forward to putting this into practice. With luck, maybe soon.
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Glad to hear! I think it's the most tightly-written thing to come out of BWHQ yet.
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It is interesting to me how baked into this game are the tropes of classical Tolkien. For example, when making an Elf character on page 16, "Do you yearn to follow the cries of the gulls to the sea and journey west beyond all knowledge or are you prepared to live a life of struggle and grief?"

I dearly love Tolkien's works. More than most probably. But at times I wish the specter of it would not loom so large. It imposes too much on my ability to run the world or character of my imagination...

Less than 20 pages in and my mind wanders to Torchbearer: Dark Sun, Torchbearer: Greyhawk, Torchbearer: Nehwon, and so on... heck, with such a resource and strife focus, perhaps the best setting hack would be Gamma World.
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Andrew Hauge
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That's definitely a quirk of the folks behind BW, I think. I spotted a large number of Tolkien references in Burning Wheel Gold, for instance. (Well, and the spell list has a few other references, like Force Lightning.)

Torchbearer: Gamma World would be pretty rad!
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William Hostman
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I've been Banished to Oregon... Gaming in Corvallis, living in Alsea... Need gamers willing to try new things...
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CarpeGuitarrem wrote:
That's definitely a quirk of the folks behind BW, I think. I spotted a large number of Tolkien references in Burning Wheel Gold, for instance. (Well, and the spell list has a few other references, like Force Lightning.)

Torchbearer: Gamma World would be pretty rad!
Under A Serpent Sun was essentially Gamma World for Burning Wheel.

BWR is heavy on the Tolkein, too. Core Rules are Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Orcs; MoBu has Trolls, Giant Spiders, Ratmen (who could easily be used for hobbits with only cosmetic changes), and Dire Wolves.
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Eric Jome
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aramis wrote:
Under A Serpent Sun was essentially Gamma World for Burning Wheel.
I didn't know Under a Serpent Sun existed. There's little information on it. The blurb is a bit weird. It's been around a while, too... odd that there's so little info about it. Not very successful? I'd love to read a review of it.
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Eric Jome
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Can you provide insight into how the concept of passing time is handled?

The game mentions an abstract unit called a turn. It consists of one test or one conflict? A turn every time I check a skill seems like you'll starve to death pretty darn fast.

Is there some similar thinking in this system to Skill Challenges in 4th Edition D&D? That is, a group of skills and checks are collected into a logically coherent element and that's a "turn"?
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Andrew Hauge
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One test/conflict, one turn. It's definitely deliberately fast. However, whenever you make camp, the turn counter resets. (For such an important rule, I feel like I didn't notice that one right away.) Thor's made mention of groups who earn checks so that they can camp every third turn, just to stave off the Grind. (That said, every time you camp means another chance for things to go wrong...)

The one exception is group tests, of the "okay, everybody needs to roll X to climb this cliff" variety.

The other way around this is the "Good Idea" section. Clever thinking is supposed to be a way to save yourself from the Grind.

Though, the GM section definitely makes it clear that the dungeon should focus on having one obstacle per challenge. There shouldn't be a large number of challenges in any one portion of the dungeon.
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