First Impressions: Torchbearer Scholar’s Guide

Is it still first impressions if its the second book?

The Torchbearer Scholar’s Guide is the companion to the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, forming the core of the game. (Sort of, more or less, I’ll get to that in the future.) My expectations going into it was that it would be “the GM’s book,” and while technically the players are welcome to read it, and expected (or hoped) to read and digest parts of it, it’s still largely written for the GM. It’s just that the split is less “player/GM,” and more “characters/the world around them.”

The short of it is that this book is a bit more work. It’s more utilitarian, sometimes a bit drier, and even a bit cerebral in explaining how to create an experience. While not quite as breezy as the previous volume, it might be more rewarding long-term.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of the book as a physical object is on par with the Dungeoneer’s Handbook I looked at last time. I do want to mention a little detail that I loved, and only noticeable when you compare the books: the books are printed in black and white with one accent color, and that accent color is different in each book. It’s a little detail, but one I appreciated.

As a small correction to my expectations, these two books are not as cleanly separated between player-facing and game master-facing rules as I thought. While players are expected to begin with the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, and GMs with the Scholar’s guide, everyone at the table is likely going to reference both books while playing. I heard criticisms that the split volumes could be cumbersome to reference at the table, and I can see how that might end up being the case. I’m typically a proponent of single-volume rulebooks, and this didn’t change my mind. It would be a heck of a lot easier if all the material you need to reference during play was in one volume (or at least a reference packet, which, sadly, is not provided as a download from the publisher).

…Which isn’t to say that this book isn’t geared more towards the game master. It doesn’t go so far as to present certain sections of the rules as forbidden knowledge, like the Dungeon Master’s Guide or Monster Manual in previous editions of D&D—an approach I find cute, so long as everyone recognizes it’s silly and unenforceable. But, there are sections of this game that are specifically written to address the game master. Players can listen, but the voice of the rulebook is explicitly saying “I’m not talking to you right now.”

In short: I found the Scholar’s Guide to be a bit more of a functional text, so I had a little less fun reading it. I wouldn’t call it a chores—there’s still quality flavor text, gameplay examples (including a walkthrough on initial worldbuilding!), and little details throughout that present the feel of the games that Torchbearer is designed to create. But, being more focused on the nitty-gritty of how to play the game, sometimes fun has to take a backseat to more straightforward technical writing. That’s more useful in play, but that does mean every so often my eyes glazed over as I read a section more suited to only being referenced if and when needed.

The somewhat more utilitarian nature of the book, combined with the intricacies of the system itself, make it a bit of a challenge to just steal ideas and drop them into a different system. The Grind is great, but tightly connected to the conditions system, as well as the Adventuring phase, which ties into the core resolution mechanism… Aside from maybe a few of the metacurrency ideas—rewarding roleplaying with advancement and in-game bonuses to rolls—it’s a bit hard to untangle.

However, on the GM-facing side of things, this book has some great resources. There’s the aforementioned walkthrough on initial worldbuilding, there’s a step-by-step process for creating adventures. Yes, it is very much geared towards dungeon delves and similar adventures, but it’s a recipe for a classic RPG experience, with some thoughtful suggestions to breathe life into it.

There’s a chapter on “Tricks of the Trade,” containing advice on running Torchbearer. Some of it will be particular to the system, but other parts will be more generally applicable, if not particularly novel. “Failing forward” gets a blurb, as does “Don’t Adventure in Town” (which resembles guidelines for a “West Marches” sandbox—if the point is to go forth and adventure, don’t put adventures in the town, or players will never leave).

The “Good Idea Rule” happened to assuage a concern I had with the game. Old-school play involves a lot of lateral thinking to avoid dangers, or at least minimize risks. Torchbearer has mechanisms to reward players with bonuses to die rolls, but what about bypassing hazards entirely? Of course, I could always just do it, but what if I upset the delicate balance of such an interconnected system? Turns out, I was being overly cautious. Rules as written, a good idea from the players can be rewarded with a free success. I can get behind that, especially with the rest of the system being as punishing as it is.

And to top it all off, and adventure! The Dread Crypt of Skogenby is… well, not particularly exciting, but it feels more “classic” than “basic.” I can see the reasons for doing so: it plays into expectations rather than fighting against them, and it eliminates the confounding variables so you can better see how the system plays compared to other games.

Actually, not only is the setup of the adventure so conventional, but so is the writing. That’s the part I’m actually excited about. Aside from a few specific details here and there, it looks like a standard, particularly old-school module. I ought to be able to adapt other adventure modules I have on the fly—or, perhaps run a Torchbearer module in another system, but that’s a topic best discussed later with the Cartographer’s Companion.

As for inspiring me to play the game, this book still delivers, albeit in a very distinct way from the previous volume. Where the Dungeoneer’s Handbook sets the tone and feeling of the game, untangling the rules in the Scholar’s Guide can feel like a puzzle.

In particular, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there are the conflict rules. They break with so many conventions in tabletop RPGs, that being an experienced player can sometimes work against you. For instance, in combat, each side (and it is distinctly designed for two-sided conflicts) will select an order for who will take which action—Attack, Defend, Feint, or Maneuver. First the GM does so in secret, then the players discuss and decide for themselves, and then the plans are revealed and resolved. I racked my brain for quite a while wondering, “So, can you pick your targets for attacks? Did I miss something?” I wouldn’t think something was missing if I didn’t have conventional combat rules so firmly in my mind.

Thankfully, and with some much appreciated help from the Torchbearer Discord community, I managed to correct my perspective. Combat in Torchbearer is chaotic and dynamic, and rather than taking a specific action on a designated turn, it’s better to think of the combatants as taking a certain posture in the fight, when they happen to find themselves near one another.
But with puzzles like these come solutions! The mysterious Grind mentioned in the Dungeoneer’s Handbook is explained, finally, revealing its secrets… and it’s all pretty straightforward. Every few turns in the Adventure phase, characters pick up a new negative condition, and their light sources steadily burn out. Not all that exciting.

Or, rather, not all that exciting by itself. The Grind is what ties the whole adventuring phase together, as the stick prodding the adventurers to get moving. The very state of being on an adventure is, by design, unsustainable. The players need to take assess the odds and take action, because just standing around is costly. It’s like how inflation encourages spending and investing, because idle money just loses purchasing power. The grind similarly punishes taking the safe and steady approach, or failing to move towards a goal.

In both cases, life is tough for your working-class adventurer.

The Grind also just hands role-playing opportunities to the players. The conditions are physical and emotional states that players can relate to—besides Death, at least in a personal capacity. It makes hit points seem sterile, when instead you can think of your character as Thirsty, Angry, and Injured.

On the GM’s side, the Grind helps pace action resolution throughout the game. When a player tests an ability, the grind progresses. If that roll fails, the GM has a choice: the player can be allowed to succeed at the cost of a condition, or the action fails and introduces a new complication. Not only does this make failure more interesting than a simple, outright failure, but it provides a safety net for the GM. If they let the player succeed, the cost of failure was the condition. If a new complication is introduced, that’s going to take more time, bringing every adventurer slightly closer to a new condition. So, complications don’t have to be clever twists on the situation—the fact that they take time to deal with is, inherently, a problem for the players.
As a thought experiment, I wonder what it would be like to run an adventure where every failure is ruled one way or the other. Success at the cost of a condition might be devastating even though, superficially, the players never outright fail in their intentions. Maybe that will be a real experiment some day.

To sum it up:

Did I enjoy reading it? Yes, but less than the Dungeoneer’s Handbook.

Will I steel material from it? Also less than the previous book.

Am I looking forward to playing it? Yes! And more so than I did before.

The Scholar’s Guide fills in the gaps visible from the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the pieces are fitting neatly into place. Even though the game already seemed a little overwhelming, it’s rare that just reading a rulebook gives me this much of a sense of what the rhythm of the game is actually like. Obviously I could be totally wrong, and the game plays very differently in practice—but there’s a clear structure of play, clear guidelines for setting the tempo and moving things along as the GM, and all the reference material I could reasonably ask for. At the very least, it’s rare that I read a rulebook (or rulebooks) for a system and come away feeling this comfortable.

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