Actual Play – The Shining Coast (9/7/2015)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Kristin Firth, Stras Acimovic, Shervyn von Hoerl, and Keith Stetson
System: Torchbearer (playtesting Journey rules)

Every since I got my hand on these I wanted to test the journey rules for Torchbearer. Not only because I like playtesting Torchbearer, but also because the journey rules might have direct application to Stone Dragon Mountain.

Thought the journey rules are meant to be a supplemental to existing adventures, for the sake of testing them out I made an adventure based solely on travel called The Shining Coast.

I had been pitching Torchbearer all con long but it seems fitting that on the last day, when people were all a bit exhausted themselves that brave (and foolish) adventurers would strap on their packs and set out for a trek, as we would all be making one ourselves soon enough.

Intro to the game

Shervyn and Keith were both familiar with Torchbearer but (if I recall correctly) hadn’t played much of it. Stras and Kristin had heard of it but didn’t know too much about the specifics. We were all a little frazzled and I didn’t want to spend much of our short time together going over rules, so I started off just by introducing the Beliefs, Instincts, and Goals (which we didn’t write down until after the adventure questions were answered).

In play we brought skills, abilities, traits, checks, wises, and conditions into play. This is my preferred method of teaching the mechanics, but I do worry that players get a bit short changed on the early rolls (and our first one was a Pathfinder Ob 4 roll, ouch).

We introduced inventory when that became relevant, but once that happened the game of “what can I carry” and “what do you mean I can’t wear my cloak and my backpack and my armor at the same time?” began.

Our Shining Coast (adventure set up).

What burden do you bear? What are you carrying, and why is it so important that it must arrive?

  • A prisoner. What crime have they committed? What judgment will they receive?

A witch that has been possessed by a demon (perhaps the only reason she is a witch). She is to be taken to Widow’s Peak, where the demon can be exorcised and the witch can be drowned then burned. She is bound in iron and cannot use her magic, but she is still very dangerous.

What haunts your sleep? Why must you delivery be made now? And with such haste?

  • Unstable parcel. What threatens the integrity of your parcel? What must you do to sustain it?

If the witch dies, the demon will be set free to possess another. She must be fed blood regularly to keep her alive. Goats are tethered to the mule drawn wagon that holds her cage, but they will not be enough. The adventurers will have to hunt or find “other ways” to sustain her.

What lies ahead? The Shining Coast is riddled with dangers, even overland. What challenge do you know will greet you?

  • Natural Disasters. What terrible weather has just passed through? How has it blocked your way?

It is late Autumn and one of the fabled Shining Storms has just passed through. They sometimes roll in from the sea. Like a normal storms but filled with occasional cinders that can destroy homes and burn down fields. Reports that the North Bridge, which they must pass over or enter the Warlords Gulch, has been damaged by the storm. An inauspicious event to be sure.

Note to GM
Populate the map with details as needed. Mark locations and time to travel between them. Hand it off to the players do the same. Are there sufficient troubles ahead? If not, keep asking questions until they are!

We agreed this would be a long journey. Two weeks. Eight days out there is a small hamlet called Dosh, not much bigger than Eagle’s Crest. From there it was another six days to Widows Peak, assuming they made good timing. Also, I didn’t tell this to the players, but I decided that the path had been wash out during the storm and a short ways out of town, they would hand to either find it again, or go forging into the wild on their own.

Setting out

At first I was a bit resistant to “giving” the player a wagon, but realized it was just going to be delicious source of problems later on.  So sure, why not. I called it a cart [Resources Ob 3 (already paid for), 15 inventory slots (nine of those taken by the witch’s cage), travels 15 miles a day over roads or hard, flat terrain]. Three of the remaining six free inventory slots were filled with hay to feed the goats.

Complications. I then rolled 2d6 to determine the number of complications on the first leg (8 days) journey. I got a 4 so they would only have one complication. Lucky them! I noodled a few ideas considering either the witch herself breaking free, or raiders from Warlord’s gulch, but didn’t decide (I picked raider) until a bit longer into the game when it was clear they weren’t taking their eyes off the witch and giving her some special way out when her magic was contained and she was physically bound in a cage didn’t feel like it was following the fiction. Though I certainly hinted at it a lot!

Base Fatigue. Since they were traveling in autumn, I set the base fatigue at 2. This (modified by other events and weather as they travel) would be the Ob of the Heath test they would have to make when arriving in Dosh.

Weather. I started off day one and rolled Blustery Winds! [Fatigue Ob bumped up to 3]

Blustery Winds

Turn by Turn

Turn 1 – Not far out of Eagle’s Crest, after it had gone inland far enough the coast could be heard but not seen the road grew fainter and fainter due to infrequent travel. After the last Shining Storm, the light tread formed by the occasional wagon wheel be came indistinct from the scrub. Soon they saw nothing but deer trails winding this way and that. [Pathfinder test Ob 4, Destination nearby (the rest of the road), ovegrown or washed out]. After some dice monger and complaining (I told them complaining about RPG rules was only a Ob 1 Peasant test if any of them wanted to beginner’s luck it), Karolina failed the test, and the whole of them were lost in the rhododendrons and other scrub brush. [Twist]

Turn 2 – Knowing the coat was basically “that way” they continued moving, convinced the would come upon a landmark that would reset their bearings. After some time they came up a fast moving creek bed, the water no deeper than a halfling. When they arrived the mule stopped, began to drink, and then just stopped, with no apparent intention of crossing. The could also tell that the creek bed was uneven enough that even if the mule got moving the cart might easily tip over. Beren, ever crafty took both his rope and Gerald’s fastened them to each side of the wagon, such that the adventurers could walk along side it holding the ropes to keep it steady [Ob 2 Carpentry, building materials, covered by Dwarven Crafting nature. Success!]

Turn 3 – Wagon secured, now they just needed to get that stubborn mule to move. The witch offered to aid in coaxing the mule to move, but nobody wanted to hear from her. Taliel, instead crossed the creek herself and from the other side began singing an enchanting elvish verse about journeys home. The mule, ensorcelled by Taliels ethereal beauty perked up and slowly made its way across the creek so that it could be closer to her presence. [Peasant OB 2, herding plus a factor for the blustery winds. Success!].

Good idea – The creek found they were able to make their way back to the coast and get back on the trail.

Turn 4 – As the day passed and night was coming close, the party worked together to find a safe camp site with protection from the elements. [Survivalist Ob 2, typical camp with “shelter” amenity. Success!]. Everyone was Hungry and Thirsty.

Instinct – Camp made Karolina and Beren set off to hunting for dinner. [Hunter Ob 2, one portion of game, forest and fields. Success!]

Instinct – Nearly alone with the witch Taliel spoke with hear to learn of her possession and how the demon could be contained if she dies. The demon spoke for itself, and told her that there was another way to contain it it. Merely give the witch as kiss on the lips and then it would pass from her to Taliel, where she could keep it safe and secure, and the witch would not longer be a danger. [Lore Master Ob 3, magical phenomenon. Success!]

Instinct – Gerald took the rabbit Karolina and Beren brought back and cooked a find supper. Someone drained the rabbits blood into a bowl and slid it into the witch’s cage. [Cooking Ob 3, game for the whole party. I can’t remember the outcome, it I think was a failure with a condition, but if you were in the game and remember, let me know].

That night, lights moving far to the west could be seen. A ship out at sea, coming closer to the coast.

The next day passed without incident, and besides the usual hunting and cooking (which I didn’t have them roll for, see below) little transpired. The did see the great ship off on the distance rising and dipping with the waves. As it go closer they saw it rise up and then descend with a great crash. The ship did not rise again.

That night torches were seen in the east moving towards them.

Turn 5 – Fearful of the raiders from Warlord’s gulch, Gerald rounded up bushes and other coverings to cover the wagon, so it could be hidden from the raiders [Scavenging. Ob and result not recorded, but it happend!]

Turn 6 – The adventurers moved away from their own camp site but left Taliel and Gerlald behind, hiding in the bushes. [Scout vs. Scout. Success!] Taliel saw the raiders sneak up on the camp, and then, when they found it unoccupied, quickly decided to make use it themselves, without to much concern about who was using it before them. The spoke of the spoils they would find on the shores and they and that they had best move fast to get there before anyone else.

Turn 7 – After the raiders were settled in and went to bed, only one guard was left on watch. Gerald led the group to quietly sneak up on him. [Scout vs. Scout test. Success!]

Turn 8 – Murdered happened [As he was unaware I made this a simple Fighter test rather than a conflict]. The guard was murdered, the throats of the rest of the raiders were slit, and what good they could take were loaded on the wagon. This was hungry and thirsty work!

Another two days passed and the weather continued to be Blustery Winds [Fatigue: 4].

Turn 9 – At night again, while Taliel medidated the demon wormed it’s way into her dreams. offering every earthly desire. Love, wealth, fame, knowledge, power, success. Anything the elf could desire. Simply wake up, kill her allies in their sleep and all the power would her hers. A desperate adventurer she might be, Taliel was not that desperate… yet [Will versus test. Success!]

On the seventh day, the wind broke and it was Clear and Cool [Fatigue: 3]

Clear and Cool

Turn 10 – The adventurers arrived at the North Bridge to find the damage was worse than they had heard. Two chains ran across the length of the bridge, with wooden boards fastened between then. Nearly in the center of the bridge the wooden boards were blasted away leaving the chains exposed and swaying in the wind. Across the way two milk farmers stood with their cow, looking at the bridge in awe and confusion. The argued about whether or not to go east to where the river could be passed but they would be close to warlord’s gulch, or just go back home. Beren meanwhile got to completely taking apart the cart. He stripped it down to individual boards, and then started using those boards to replace the shattered pieces of the bridge. It wouldn’t “repair” the bridge, but he thought he could make it passable, at least for a person. [Nature test, Success!]

Turn 11 – Tentatively prodding his work Beren was convinced it would hold a person, but it couldn’t be sure if it would hold two people struggling to carry a heavy iron cage with a witch in it. They had to go slowly to not lose their balance, but fast enough the bridge didn’t give out. Taliel had a back up plan. She was prepared to cast lightness of being. The ran spears through rungs in the cage so they could hold it at a distance and then made the difficult treck over. The whole thing took hours, and when they were done, everyone was exhausted! [Ob 6 Health text. Failure, Condition Exhausted]

Elated by their success (and the not dying). Beren collected the boards on the bridge so they could rebuild the cart and continue their very long, and very perilous journey…

What Rocked

At some point, you know just to add more gonzo to the mix, someone said the witch was a shapechanger as well. Oh good. So throughout the game I kept depicting the witch as mix of different appearances. A hulking brute barely contained in the cage, a young girl, malnourished and weak, an exceedingly handsome man with a devilish smile, a bald old woman with squinting eyes. There was no mechanical effect of this but I very much enjoyed never describing the change, but always the particular effect. “He hunches over, his shoulders pressed against the bars.” …. “She looks hungrily at your dinner, her stomach rumbling and the manacles dangling loosely on her wrists.” Yeah, I enjoyed playing that witch quite a bit.

There was some really interesting discussion about what to do with the raiders. They weren’t really interested in the adventurers, but they were a threat. And while they might have been able to sneak past them all, there was no way they would get the cart and the goats past them without notice. In fact they had to move the carter farther away than expected because the witch wouldn’t be quiet. Thanks to those blustery winds for muffling her voice! So, they thought about all of their options, and the safest thing was murdering them all in their sleep. Grim.

There were great moments where the system shined and people were like “damn” that is awesome. Getting across the creek at first wasn’t that challenging a task (two Ob 2 tests). But they way the players did it was beautiful. Kristin was like “hey, my character has rope. He can make a harness. Anyone else have rope?” Gerald did and so he and Beren set about like an A-team montage. Then when Stras asked what elvish singing was for and I read the description his eyes lit up. And when they did it everyone had this great sense of accomplishment…from crossing a creek!

What could have improved

There was some real clashing with the constraints of the system. Stras in particular brought up some things that frustrated him. I want to take the cloak and put it on. No room to put it on, okay, I put in in my backpack. It take two slots, okay, I put it in a sack. I have to hold the sack in one hand once I fill it? Okay, I roll it up and tie it to the top of my backpack. That takes a laborer test to carry additional items? Okay, I put it on the wagon. The wagon is full? I just drape it over the feed barrels. That takes a laborer test? Okay, I have an empty head slot. I wrap it up like a turban. That takes a weaver test? I burn the fucking cloak.

This happens. It’s one part player expectations (Torchbearer is a very different game than many fantasy RPGs) and it’s one part making sure to follow from the fiction. In a later discussion with Stras, I told him “I should have never said no, I just should have asked what you did to make it work and then had you make a test accordingly.” Stras pointed out that would have felt like a gotcha, which is another thing I’ve run into in other games, specifically the players feeling “tricked” into using up their resources (turns) on things they didn’t think would be tests. This is a kind of connotative dissonance that results from different expectations and I think early investment in establishing those can really help. Also, once you’ve been playing for a while, so long as everyone keeps a positive attitude and doesn’t take it too personally, you fall into a rhythm and it gets easier.

I felt it a bit redundant that I made two challenges which were essentially both “get across this thing”. I like those kind of challenges, but I think I should have filled the first river crossing with some other features to make it more distinct. Raging waters, a predator stalking them on the other side, goats getting skittish (though the mule already was), the witch momentarily regaining her power when crossing over the water. Of course all these ideas come to me now, but damn, in the moment I was like “uh, stubborn mule, top heavy wagon, Go!”

Rules clarification for myself to look up. When a’mn instinct is triggered by “camping” does it require the camp phase, or can it be done any time someone says they are settling down for the night. In our journey days passed and they hunkered down, but they stayed in the adventuring phase (at first because nobody had checks and later because they didn’t need to remove conditions or do other camp actions). I allowed it but I’m not sure that was correct. This seems particularly important for long overland journeys.

There were very few failed rolls in this game. Now, that’s hardly a problem per se, but it’s usually failed rolls leading to a twist that really get the action going. It’s also twists that reveal how the mechanics reinforce the fiction. Tried this and something else happened, now you’ve got to deal with that! Not a horrible fate for the game, but oh how I would have loved it if Beren’s roll to fix the bridge had failed…

Playtest specific feedback

In addition to the things noted above, here were my observations:

  • A journey is not enough to make an adventure. If the journey is just one leg of an adventure, it’s probably adequate to do some inventory management, handle a few complications, and then make health checks at the end. For me though, I wanted to play out the trials and tribulations of getting to Widow’s Peak and so I found myself adding a lot more challenges to the mix. They were fun to play, but I was doing it all off the cuff. I missed my dungeon rooms!
  • I wasn’t sure about pacing and resources. When do you play out ever step of the road and when do you say “three days pass, mark off three rations each.” This becomes especially relevant when the Halfling says “wait, wait, I’m going to cook every night so we only need three rations total”, and then the Warrior says, “wait, wait, I’m going to hunt every night, so we don’t need any rations at all.” Do you treat all of these actions as part of the adventure phase (thus potentially denying camp based instincts, see above) or do you make the do something so they can earn a check, so they can enter camp phase, so they can use these instincts. As a GM, what’s a good way to parse the conversation? Here’s a few ideas I can think of:
    • Tell the players. “You need to travel for X days, so unless you want to do anything along the way, everyone mark off X rations.” Then wait to see if anyone objects.
    • Ask the players “How do you want to handle this journey. Take your time and resources [Turns] to go hunting an cooking and what not, or use up supplies you have?”
    • Or play out every day, one at a time, even if there isn’t an event or challenge to be had per se (this seems the slowest, but most fitting with the rules as presented).
    • Hand wave it and say “Okay, it takes X days but because you hunt and cook every night, don’t worry about rations just the complications as they come up. What do you know, there’s a bugbear in your path!” This is the worst and the best option. The worst because you’re disengaging all the gears of Torchbearer. The best because as a GM, you’re electing to dive right into the bits that are exciting you. Note, feel free to replace bugbear with fire, flood, bandit, magical phenomenon, candy house, etc.
  • Travel distance and time seems oddly more concrete than most aspects of Torchbearer, which are abstracted. I wouldn’t think to specify the number of miles between two locations, and then to do the math to divide that into the speed of travel. I mean it can be done, but my inclination was much more along the lines of, this will take X days. Given different rates of speed though, I can see how X days isn’t as useful. I’d consider a roll (not necessarily a test) made at the beginning of a journey, with modifiers based on the speed of travel. Walking would be flat and other modes would give penalties (if slower) or bonus (if faster). The result of the roll would be a days added or subtracted from the base. So if the base time for a trip was six days, you’d roll and see if that could be done is a day less, or a day more, etc. To be efficient, this could be attached to the complication chart (as an additional column) so the amount that a journey could be modified by would be based on how long the original journey is in days.

Stone Dragon Mountain

Stone Dragon Mountain Cover

Stone Dragon Mountain

The stories that got you started up the mountain were plentiful. After an earthquake the frozen maw at the peak cracked open and a world of splendors awaits those brave enough to climb its forbidding steppes and delve its depths. A drunk in the House of Seven Wonders held aloft a jagged spike of gemstone, a Dragon’s Tooth, that he said rolled right down the mountain and stabbed him in the foot. He still has the limp to prove it!

Wise women gossip about gods buried inside the mountain, and their crypts laden in gold. There is even rumors of the Dragon’s Heart, an eternal flame, nestled inside Stone Dragon Mountain.

Stone Dragon Mountain is an introductory adventure for Torchbearer in development. The adventure starts with a climb up a deadly snow capped mountain and then into it’s depths. Many creatures, human and otherwise, call the mountain their home, and each of them will want something from the intrepid adventures, even if that something is the creature’s next meal. The adventure takes between 2-4 sessions to complete.

The adventure was originally written in the summer of 2014 and I ran several playtests of it at Go Play Northwest, Gen Con, CelestiCon, and with my Google Hangout group.

After the adventure felt workable to me, I hired Thor Olavsrud as a developmental editor…and together we ripped the adventure apart, took all the best parts, tossed the rest, and rebuilt it. Thor has improved the adventure a hundredfold!

In 2015 I ran an an open playtest with over fifty groups participating and received a ton of fantastic feedback. After that I worked on shoring up the weak portions of the adventure and fleshing out the social structures. I also hired Michael Wenman to start making the four maps needed for the adventure.

In 2016 I plan to complete the final edits and release this as a digital product!

Current Project Status:

Complete. Available in Print / PDF

Actual Play – Secret Mystery Game (10/19/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Luke Crane
Players: Matt Glover, Shaun Hayworth, Matt Troedson, and Sean Nittner
System: Torchbearer-ish (USCMC)

Edit (1/6/2015): Now that is been released. The game we were playtesting was the US Colonial Marine Corpse 

Recorded for posterity sake. Luke playtested a new game with us at Big Bad Con that was fucking awesome. We can’t say anything about it so instead I’ll talk about the people.

Shaun brain vs. Luke brain. We had a conflict that lasted three rounds (9 actions) and Luke and Shaun (the conflict captain) scripted the identical action NINE TIMES! I’ve never seen it before. And there were some pretty furious debating on our side to come to it. What the hell could Luke be thinking? What cues in the fiction would he take to spin off of? Note, it’s not exactly good strategy to script identical to your opponent. Feint for instance (which was scripted) really tips the scales if you can manage to get it against a Defend or against you if your opponent scripts Attack. It’s just remarkable to me that we scripted identically!

I know Luke runs games for pretty diverse groups (like say, a bunch of the staff at Kickstater) so I’ve been curious about his GMing style for a while. What does he do to engage new players? How does he teach the rules? Does he use funny voices for his NPCs? Here’s what I found in the session we played. Luke’s style is pretty conventional. He doesn’t jump up on the table and shout at his players or use multimedia slideshow presentations during game. What shines is his experience and comfort with the system. He’s got reflexive knowledge not just of the rules but of how to employ them. For instance when should you call for a test or a conflict, what skill and obstacle for a challenge, how to best pick compromise results. etc. He’s also a high energy, enthusiastic GM. He was excited about the game, and excited about showing it to us.

Matts and S[h,e]a[u,-]ns. It was pretty cool getting to game with these guys. We’re all Torchbearer and BW fans and most of us have played together before. Our characters weren’t at each other’s throats but there was some fun friction when I told Shaun to do a stupid, stupid thing and he, with all respect, told me just how stupid it was. Good times!

I learned something that I didn’t pick up from the text of Torchbearer. You don’t share your goals with the group (or the GM) until the end of the session. There is a mention to this on page 107 under the New Goals header but I hadn’t picked up on it before, “At the end of the session, you’ll review your Goal.”

Thoughts on the game

It will probably still be a while before any news about this game isn’t NDA but here’s four happy dudes playing it!


Actual Play – Stone Dragon CelestiCon (8/29/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Greg Wirth, Sarah Hawklyn, Sean Phelan, Mike Garcia, and Bay Chang
System: Torchbearer
Module: Stone Dragon Mountain

Up Diamond Tooth’s pass they went. Karolina made the dive to leap the expand unto his bridge and she came very, very close to making it!

Introducing the game

Not sure why but I really felt the need to disclaim the nature of Torchbearer by way of apology at the start of the game. Mike Garcia has played in my Apocalypse World games, Greg and Sarah run a Teenagers From Outer Space LARP, and Bay and I have often talked about simple game mechanics. Torchbearer is none of those things. I started with these introductory snippets:

  • Torchbearer is a game of survival and exploration; neither is easy.
  • There are treasures to be found, but they will have to be pried from the frozen grip of the mountain.
  • Your characters are desperate people. Foolishly optimistic opportunists.

Here were my questions to get them thinking about their characters:

  • What led you to this life?
  • What was the last thing you ate? Did it make you sick?
  • Who have you let down?
  • Does anyone depend on you?
  • What gives you hope this band of adventures will succeed?
  • Who shows the most promise?
  • Who is the leader?

We got some interesting results. Taika had betrayed Ulat, the head of the rangers. Berren knew Karolina’s father. Ulrik killed a puppy.

Adventure Highlights

Ulrik trying to save the dying Dermot and being interrupted by the snowfall.

Adventurers trekking up the mountain in the snow! Pathfinding has never been so hard!

Taika saving Karolina by casting Lightness of Being on her when she was about to slip off the edge of the walkway.

During camp Varg casting Wisdom of the Sages to speak with the caged Mikra and someone for the first time learning who they are!

Some pics of the game

Thoughts on the game

There was a moment when Karolina almost fell off the walkway and Taika saved her by casting Lightness of Being. Sarah (who was playing Taika) asked if why Karolina was levitating if she could also cross over the expanse they were looking at. I declined because that was a separate test. It was a pixel bitch move of me to make Taika’s spell end once Karolina was safe and not let her traverse the bridge first. I was interpreting it very literally (last for one test) when within the fiction it should have covered both.

Once again I think the adventure would be stronger not starting in the base camp. That one is going in the hopper for edits.

Actual Play – Speed Torches (8/17/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: John Kramer, Alan DeSmet, Steve Nix, Scott Harloot, Brian Habenicht, and Jesse Butler
System: Torchbearer
Module: Stone Dragon Mountain

Games on Demand was hurting really hard for two hour games, so when Ajit asked me if I could run Torchbearer in two hours I said sure. I mean, I had done it last year with Under the House, so why not do it now with Stone Dragon.

Except, Stone Dragon starts with a perhaps prolonged social environment and I was worried we would spend the session there, so I just skipped it. Lets start the game at Location 2, The Mountain Ascent.

Also, I didn’t bother going over any of the rules. I just told people to read their beliefs, instincts, and pick a goal.

Speed Turns

Part of moving quickly meant less note taking for me. Suffice to say the adventurers took to the mountain like rocks. They clambered up it, got lost, dug up dead adventurer to take their supplies, hunted for game, and then ended with a fight!

Thoughts on the Game

I learned some interesting things running this game.

First, the base camp location is great, but it shouldn’t be first. Torchbearer starts best with action and the base camp takes a while to wind up to action. We’re moving stuff around.

Teach Torchbearer just a bit at a time is doable, but there are a few challenges.

  • Players instinctively want to find answers on their character sheets. But if they can’t read a character sheet, time spent deciphering it pulls focus away from the game.
  • As a GM I want to be fair to new players. I can think of ways for them to gain advantages (via using traits, creating supplies, describing their actions to leverage the fiction in their favor) when facing challenges and I feel a sense of obligation to give them their best shot. However, often doing so means introducing every option they could take, which slows the game again. In particular, if not told, nobody would ever think to gain checks…but introducing that mechanic when you’re not in the perfect situation (oh, you can’t succeed in this test anyway, why not gain a check to make this a bit harder, it’ll help you later) can send players into dice outcome probability calculations mode.
  • Telling someone, no you can’t use your Clever trait to help someone else is a bummer, especially when they they are trying to help someone who is skilled and they don’t have any of the appropriate skills to help with, so you don’t even have an alternative to offer them.
Those who remained!



Actual Play – Stone Dragon Sages (8/16/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Wil Hammerand, Frost Holliman, Joshua Gay, Pamela Alexander, John Alexander, and Patrick Day.
System: Torchbearer
Module: Stone Dragon Mountain

Game number two at Gen Con! Of the players Frost was familiar with Torchbearer, but the others were new to it. They took to it quickly and had the right spirit about diving in doing their best.

Turn by Turn on the Mountain

Turn 1 – At base camp they quickly tended to Dermot’s wounds. There was much negotiating over how they would do this, try to clean the wound and save the leg, or cut off  the leg and save he man. Beren argued fiercely to cut off the leg, Dermot countered that without his leg he could never get vengeance for his sons. Ulrik refused to cut off the leg and instead tried to treat the wound. [Healer Ob 3. Fail: Twist] Dermot thrashed in pain and the operation took place but too much blood was lost. In his last dying words he begged that his sons be avenged.

Turn 2 – Having made quite a spectacle accidentally killing Dermot, the tried to butter up the Sharwa in the base camp in the hopes of gaining supplies for the road. They got them, but they came with a grave warning about the gods and their anger. Jhala, one of the Sharwa women equipped them with rope, an ice pick, and the certainty of their doom! [Persuader Ob 4. Fail: Condition Afraid]

Turn 3 – Feeling short on supplies, and eager to make use of the base camp’s provisions Karolina set out to go hunting for game. The sun moved fast in the western sky however and soon was dipping below the mountain. Any game she might have caught quickly escape her in the dim light [Hunter Ob 2. Fail: Twist]

Turn 4 – Annoyed that so little progress had been made and already daylight was fading, Beren urged everyone to light torches and start climbing the mountain. When the trail was lost Karolina and Takia tested out many routes  up the loose gravel until the found a sturdy one, gaining much needed ground to reach the canyon above. [Pathfinder Ob 3. Success]

For all their efforts now the party really did feel like making making camp. Their bellies were rumbling as they were all Hungry and Thirsty.

Spell – Unwilling to make camp so exposed to the elements, Varg cast upon the wisdom of the Sage to read the sign written in Sharwa. With dangers in either direction they opted for Khumba’s pass, unafraid of demons.

Camp Phase

Instinct – Varg made a map of their progress down to base camp [Cartography Ob 2. Success]

Instinct – Gerald prepared some of his fresh fruits, berries, and cony to make a delicious stew for all [Cooking Ob 2. Success]

The Adventure continues

After camp they had one last harrowing near slip down the mountain, only saved by borrowed rope, and much effort was put into hauling up beleaguered companions.

 Thoughts on this game

I think this is the first time Dermot died. It was the circumstances under which he died, that made it really memorable though. It was an Ob3 Health test no matter what, but how Ulrik tended to his wounds was of critical importance to Beren. It showed him that Ulrik and Dermot were both soft and couldn’t handle the realities of the world. For Dermot that meant bleeding out and dying, who knows what it would eventually mean to Ulrik.

Overall despite saying it was not her “type of character at all” Pamela blew me away with her depiction of Beren. One of the best I’ve seen yet. Accent, attitude, and begrudging bravery!

Developmental notes: The Sharwa should want something (or somethings) from the PCs. Give them something to trade for. Dermot needs to be more forthcoming with information about Kumbha.

Actual Play – My Grudge Stick! (8/16/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Shaun Hayworth, Jason Gunter, William Jordens, Robert Dixon, and Albert Anderson
System: Torchbearer
Module: Stone Dragon Mountain

Okay. Torchbearer at Gen Con. No problem. Did it last year and had lots of fun Under the House. This year, I’m running my own adventure though. Stone Dragon Mountain. One I know is at shortest a two-parter.

Prep work

I think I’ve got Torchbearer prep down to a science.

  • Spiral bound print out of the rulebook, complete with tagged chapters
  • Three player decks composed of a custom grouping of cards
  • A bag of coins to serve as look
  • Red poker chips for Disposition
  • Black poker chips for Checks
  • Fate/Persona coins (originally made for Mouse Guard but they work well here)
  • Seven sets of dice (in different colors)
  • GM Screen
  • A folder with character sheets, table tents, and the adventure

Luckily most of this stuff packs dense!

Climbing up that down mountain

Adventuring Phase

Turn 1 – In base camp Gerald set about showing the locals how to cook, in an attempt to better their mood and impress them. [Cook Ob 2. Fail: Hungry and Thirsty]. He succeeded but in doing so built up quite an appetite himself!

Turn 2 – Outside of the camp Karolina tried to befriend Dermot, but he was insulted by her condolences [Persuader versus test. Fail: Twist]. Enraged by her words Dermot jumped on Karolina when tumbling down the mountain side with her.

Instinct – Always on the watch for Karolina, Beren tackled Dermot and pulled him off, but in the rucks Dermot’s axe gave him an ugly gash across the dwarf’s hip [Fighter versus test. Fail: Injured]

Camp Phase

Disheartened by their early setbacks, the adventurers opted to make camp with the Sharwa

Instinct – Karolina set out to go hunting for game on the mountain [Hunter Ob 5. Fail: Twist] She spent hours trying to hunt a hare when she realized something was trying to hunt her.

Check – Meanwhile back at the camp, Beren would have sought her out, but his wound was killing him. Taika set out to finder her. She found Karolina watching the woods around her very carefully and wary of something around her. Taika spooked the very rabbit that Karolina had been hunting and they both used the distraction to run safely back to camp. [Hunter Ob 2. Success]

Instinct – Without any fresh game to use Gerald used his rations to cook up a hearty meal for all… or mostly him! [Cook Ob 2. Success]

IMG_2965Check – Beren, taunted by Ulrik that the locals used spike boots and that he should make some, set about crafting. He took some of his iron spikes and a hammer and tried to fashion some of his one. That damn nails kept slipping, and there was no good surface to work on, and the bloody cold was numbing his fingers. [Carpentry Ob 2. Fail: Angry] He made the boots alright, just like any dwarf worth his salt, but the wasted time rose up a terrible ire in him. He pulled out his “grudge stick” and wrote a grudge against Ulrik, that he would make the Cleric walk barefoot across a bed of Dragon’s Teeth to appreciate the value of good footwear!

Adventuring Phase

Turn 1 – Up the mountain they went until the path faded away into nothing but loose gravel and rhododendron bushes. Karolina forged ahead an with some help from Beren and Taika’s watchful eye, they found their way up the mountain and bath onto a path! [Pathfinder Ob 3. Success]

Turn 2 – As the path split, leading off east and west around Wing Glacier Canyon, the adventures did what they could to transcribe the sign at the pass. They gathered that it indicated in either direction, only varied in form. Diamond Tooth or Khumba’s pass? Beware greed from the first, a demon on the second. [Scholar Ob 2. Success]

Turn 3 – Oh god I love the nigh impassible walkway. Using a rope and grappling hook to catch the pulley lines, the clever adventurers raised the fallen bridge [Health Ob 4. Success]

Turn 4 – Ignoring Diamond Tooth they continued up the path to the river of bounty where the spotted a mother bear fishing with her cubs. Fishing for golden fish! Karolina was going to get some of those fish. The scared off the mother bear and her cubs but not without Karolina taking savage blow to her head,  claws tearing at her face and ear. [Drive off conflict won with a compromise: Karolina Injured]

Up ahead they saw the great Dragon’s Maw… open and full of promise within!

Thoughts on this game

Teaching new players how to play Torchbearer in a loud room can be a challenge. There are lots of moving parts and the noise is distracting. This game I think went better than the next one because I had Shaun Hayworth in it, who was able to help out with teaching the rules and giving good advice to the other players (especially when we were scripting the drive off conflict).

Oh my god, my favorite thing in this whole game was that damn grudge stick. I love the idea that Beren carves his grudges into a stick and breaks it when they are resolved… if ever. The banter between him and Ulrik was great.

My highest praise for Torchbearer game from Shaun Hayworth:

Actual Play – Stone Dragon Mountain (7/29/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Mark Miller, Alex Miller, and Max Külshammer.
System: Torchbearer
Module: Stone Dragon Mountain

We had lots (lots) of technical difficulties getting started, part of that was due to connectivity, and partially to devices. We also ended up finishing some character creation for Amos at start, so the end result was a slightly shorter session than normal.

Alex introduced us to Amos the Halfling Burglar, the little one that takes the path of least resistance and always recovers expended gear after climbing.

Setting Goals

After this introduction goals were set.

The mountain ascent is a slow and arduous one. After several days of hiking you still haven’t reached the snow line, but have passed several Sharwa, the people of the mountain, who have told you stories of woe on their way down. Goats and sheep have gone missing, climbers have ascended the mountain and not returned. They speak of beasts of legend, the Mikra, never seen before, now casting shadows in the moonlight. The heat — what heat, it’s freezing and you haven’t even hit snow yet — they say is a bad omen.

Cleg – I’m going to loot this place for all it’s worth.

Amos – I’ll return with a sack full of dragon’s teeth.

Milton – I will enter the Stone Dragon Mountain to discover the secrets hidden inside.

Actual Play on Air

Turn By Turn

In base camp Milton spoke with Ankit and learned of the missing sheep. Cleg befriended Jhala and learned of the two mountain passes above. Amos spied Dermot at the edge of camp.

Instinct – Milton set about mapping their way up the mountain so far but in the process offended the local Sharwa [Cartography Ob 3. Fail:Twist]. Dhara, Jhala’s daughter, was offend that Milton was sitting on an idol of Rava that he thought was a bench seat. She pushed him off the idol, ruining his map as ink spilled over it.

Turn 1 – Amos convinced Dermot to “loan” him so rope to go climbing up mountain and gain vengeance for his sons. [Persuader Ob 3. Fail: Condition Hungry And Thirsty]. Amos had to sit with him for a long time swapping stories and building up a powerful thirst.

Turn 2 – Cleg led Milton in a prayer to Rava to beg forgiveness for his transgressions. Asking Milton for help “You don’t have to believe it, just do it!” [Ritualist Ob 1: Fail: Twist] The Sharwa went from annoyed to angry. Dhara punched Cleg for his clear deference to the gods of earth instead of the new gods of sky. She was on him, trying to goad him into a fight.

Turn 3  – Desperate to try and make peace and not incite them further Cleg asked Jhala to come to his aid. She had sympathy on him, told the Sharwa he was young and inexperienced and that to make up for his offense, he would make amends. The Sharwa laughed, and Dhara invited him into the cooking tent where he could rub her feet.

Turn 4 – Meanwhile, Amos used the distraction of the camp being angry at his friends to try and snatch an ice pick from the camp. [Criminal vs test. Success] Amos stared down the young boy Ankit who was watching him and never flinched so the boy did not notice when he picked it up.

Hungry and Thirsty applied to Milton and Cleg. Exhausted applied to Amos.

Turn 5 – After sharing a meal with the Sharwa, the brave adventurers set out. They went to the grove of trees where Ankit indicated the sheep disappeared. Milton found signs of passage tried to identify them. [Hunter Ob 2. Twist]. Before they could idenfity the tracks the sun began to set without daylight they couldn’t make out the tracks.

The adventurers tromped off into the dimming light. Current status: Sun setting.


Amos – Belief: Take the path of least resistance (Fate), Preparing for the mountain trek (Fate), Teamworker (Persona), Embodiment (Persona)
Milton – Belief: Careful planning (Fate), Learning the mysteries of the mountain (Fate)
Cleg – Belief: Serve others before serving myself (Fate), MVP (Persona)

Thoughts on this game

Handling escalation – I used twists in the camp to worsen the camp disposition towards the party. The first time Milton was defiling a shrine. Then Cleg performed a ritual and prayed to the wrong gods. In my mind then went from indifferent, to unfriendly, to hostile. The next step would have been violent. I think I should have been better about punctuating those differences with a particular act. Something Dhara could have done that would have made it clear that they were not welcome. Perhaps folks raising weapons to drive them out of the camp, or Jhala speaking for her and turning on the party. It seemed like I gave them too easy and out to have Jhala stay there as someone they could talk to.  Also, I think having Jhala “fix” the problem deprotagonized the players.

I totally should have made Amos either hide the ice pick in the show and give it to Cleg after they left camp and eat on his own since he had no place to hide it on his person.

Still hard to break people away from “mechanics first” driven play. I think I said about 10 times, “just describe what you do”. I think I need to lead by more example by just carrying the fiction forward more based on their descriptions until a danger is presented.

Cleg needs to update his belief for next game.


Actual Play – Elfia’s Tower (7/1/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Mark Miller, Alex Miller, and Max Külshammer.
System: Torchbearer
Module: Under the House of the Three Squires

Back in Town. Elfia’s tower even! (Milton’s home town).

This game was a bit rough because Alex was still creating his character (hard to do while town phase is going on) and we had some latency issues. But adventurers are not thwarted so easily. We carried on.

Elfia’s Tower

Originally I was going to have the characters return to Skogenby because it was a named location in Middlemark, but Max really wanted to see his mentor in the Wizard’s Tower, so I thought it a good opportunity to flesh out a bit more of the world.

I went back and forth asking them questions and this is what his home town turned into.

Elfia’s tower is named after the grand wizard that built it, Elfia. She has fostered an entire community of alchemists, enchanters, apothecaries, jewelers, magicians, and other higher trades. There is a school attached and a dungeon beneath it. Because there are few natural resources here, but many amazing creations, considerable merchant traffic comes in and out of the town.

Elfia’s tower has gotten a bad name though, due to some merchants being ensorcled by enchanters, paid with fools gold, or otherwise being robbed by the residents.

When they arrived the town event I rolled was a new sumptuary law and it seemed very fitting to require all wizards must wear conical hats.  Elfia is clearly trying to improve the town’s reputation and hold wizards accountable for their actions!

I also rolled that the Goldsmiths were on watch at the time and so we detailed a few of them. Rastin and Juliet were at the gates. Two journeymen both trying to sound smarter than the other about the ideal temperature for working with gold alloys, and the best unctures to use in polishing gold, alloys to make it stronger and the like. They hardly paid mind to the people entering, except to tell them of the new laws. Neither of them wore hats. Susan the smith is the leader of the Goldsmiths. Maybe she knew Milton’s parents?

Torchbearing in Town on Air

Level up!

Both Milton and Cleg reached level two! Huzza. Milton got a new spell and Cleg gained the Shrewd benefit (able to make Haggler test during the town phase without raising lifestyle).

When it came time (after practicing with his mentor Paul) Milton was taught the spell Eldritch Darts!


Cleg knows his stuff. He succeeded in his haggler check so had two options: Hard Bargain or Thriftiness!


Milton stayed with his Mentor Paul.  Sleeping on his hard floor he still recovered from being exhausted. Cleg stayed in the inn and recovered from his conditions as well! On their way to being Fresh!

Personal Business

What to do with a locked chest when in town? Hit with a hammer and crack it open. Yay, silver!

To Market!

In search of a conical hat, and other rations, Milton and Cleg went to the market. A local vendor sold simple weaved hats offered simple bulap suited for apprentices, but a traveling merchant from the mountains named Pasang was selling leader caps with imprints of their owner’s initials. While haggling with the vendor Milton heard a man bellowing the name “PAUL!” [Resources Ob 2. Fail: Twist]. It turns out Paul had charmed a goldsmith’s wife and he wanted revenge. Mistaking Milton for Paul (because Milton was wearing Paul’s hat) he nearly took Milton’s head. When he realize his mistake Nieman, the goldsmith demanded to know where Paul was so he could go pulverize him. Milton and Cleg lied, claiming that Paul was on a walk about. Getting the better of Nieman (and spending a lifestyle check on personal business to keep him away from Paul) he earned his cap, twin M’s imprinted into it, with lightning bolts for the tines of the M.

Other items purchased with less fanfare were rations, torches, and a satchel.

Paying the Bills

On their way out of town, with the remaining coin in their purses, Milton and Cleg mustered enough to pay their bills and leave Fresh! (A pretty miraculous feat I’d say)

They also met up with Amos, a halfling down on his luck but with the promise of riches. Dragon’s Teeth that are supposed to be just rolling down the hill from the Stone Dragon Mountain!

Thoughts on this game

Google Hangouts (or any video conferencing for that matter) are terrible for trying to have two conversations at once. At a table, some players can talk to each other about one thing while some others talk about another. NOT SO ON HANGOUTS. Every time I tried to have Mark and Max talk about what to do in town while simultaneously doing character creation with Alex, it was a total dud.

Town phase was pretty smooth. We really just handled recover and purchasing goods as nobody wanted to spend lifestyle on anything else. I called all tests (dealing with Nieman or opening the chest) personal business, so it inclined folks to get out of town quick.

The jealous goldsmith was pretty fun to play. I was just waiting for Milton to fail the roll and gain an enemy, but he made it and evaded the grisly fate!


Actual Play – Stone Dragon Mountain SUN-03 (6/29/2014)

torchbearer-rpgGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Matt Klein, Dale Horstman, Zed Lopez, Zac Bond, and Jon Edwards.
System: Torchbearer
Adventure: Stone Dragon Mountain


Seriously, I had planned to run one, then two games of Torchbearer, but because I filled in for one slot, and because we ran the next slot as well as a second session, I ended up running 14 hours of Torchbearer. And it was awesome!

I ran at the same table so all I needed was get the characters ready (with some help from Jon Edwards), and set back up all the player decks.  Boom, adventure was served!

Who Bears the Torch

Matt was waffling on characters and I told him to take Ulrik the Cleric. He looked disappointed. “Okay, if someone has to play the cleric… I guess I will”. Matt, read that belief. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead in this world, and I’ll wear a smile doing it!” A light went on and he played the best Ulrik I’ve ever seen.

Jon took Taika, and mad her suddenly bloodthirsty when he made her goal to “Return with the head of a creatures that is plauging this mountain”. Like, not to kill one, but to remove the head, drain the blood and store it in her pack [pack 2 if you’re wondering].

Dale played Beren. Hardy, tough and out to get a dragon’s tooth!

Zed was Varg, who wanted even more dragon teeth!

And then there was Zak, blood thirsty, gonna kill it with my spear Zak. If Matt played the greediest Ulrik I’ve seen, Zak played the most brutal Karolina!

Here to help, and by help we mean loot!

Would you expect a healer to tend to an injured man? Sure, why not. And then rob him? Hell yes you would! What better cover could there be.

Base camp? Bah, whatever, lets go kill some stuff.

Cross a perilous bridge? Forget it, just bang on that old bell till an old man comes out to lower it down, promise him riches, and then brain him. Okay, Diamond tooth totally had it coming, but it was one of the most surprising move I had seen running the game. Brutal and awesome.

Fish of gold? Take em!

Monsters without loot? Fuck it. Lie and run.

Guys with loot! Kill the fuckers. Take their stuff.

Could you believe this guy would give you a hug and then stab you in the back? You bet he would!



Thoughts on the game

Amazingly I wasn’t tired at all (or at least didn’t feel tired) running this game. We really fast tracked as soon as they got inside the mountain but otherwise played the game straight up. Part of our speed was using tests in place of conflicts. For braining an old man it felt really perfect. This wasn’t a kill conflict, either he was going to brain the guy (success) or the crazy loon was going to bury them all by collapsing his cornice on them (failure, twist)!

Starting characters with 1 fate and 1 person makes them incredibly powerful in a con game. I tried that this time (and I’ve done it when I ran Dread Crypt at Dead of Winter) and I think it was a bad call. I may try 1 fate in the future but I think not. Not only does it make the characters more powerful, but it also introduces several decisions points that new players aren’t necessarily ready for. As a GM I am judicious in when I suggest using them, but they are still one more thing to factor in.

Players that are totally immoral opportunists do just fine in Torchbearer. I mean it. In this case, has we continued playing they would have walked out with some treasure and stopped the worst of the problems that brewed in the mountain. Leaving behind a civil war? Sure, but there are worse outcomes.

Not tired before the game, but as soon as it finished…wasted.


Hungry & Thirsty and Exhausted
Hungry & Thirsty and Exhausted