I've been running a lot of Torchbearer lately and making a lot of TikTok videos about it (hit me up @DSRAdam over there while we still can) and I'm at the point with my TT videos where the thought that I want to talk about is either (a) too long for a TikTok video or (b) is too in-depth for someone to engage with. What a way to come back to the blog, eh? To return to writing over here simply because I cannot talk about what I want to talk about elsewhere and to want to do that talking?
Anyway, here's the thing about Torchbearer:
Torchbearer is an RPG about running out of time.
When you're in the Aventure Phase in Torchbearer, every 4th turn you rack up a new Condition. When you're in the Town Phase, everything you do adds to your Lifestyle Cost, which you have to square up when you begin your next Adventure Phase -- this is even harder during the Respite Phase, a special-case Town Phase that happens about once or twice a year in-game. The game's third phase, the Camp Phase, depletes a meta currency unimaginatively named "checks." In the first two cases, you're racking up a tally (Conditions or Lifestyle Cost factors) that you'll have to deal with later; in the Camp Phase, you're spending the "checks" to do that dealing. Balancing the three makes it apparent: Torchbearer is a game about running out of time.
Time is a strange resource in Torchbearer, as well. In every RPG, we have a few different types of time that we need to bear in mind, and there's a feeling that "game time" will pass if we let it. By just doing anything -- or even nothing at all -- time will pass in most standard RPGs. In Torchbearer, time passing isn't quite so simple. Well, at least not for the Adventure Phase.
The Adventure Phase is the most fun part of Torchbearer. It's where you do your Torchbearing and other things that The Game Is About. To communicate that "aboutness" (intentionality is the word for those playing along at home), and to approximate the BX rules that are the wellspring that Torchbearer flows from, Torchbearer breaks down "time" into Turns (although the name of the time convention is arbitrary, using the ancestral nomenclature is appreciated), and every fourth Turn, all of the PCs (adventurers) in the session gain a Condition. But unlike other games that use Turns as a time abstraction, Turns in Torchbearer do not simply pass on their own; you, the adventurer, make them pass by taking actions.
The simple extension of this idea is that time only passes when adventurers take action. Turns do not pass without the players choosing to make them pass.
While Torchbearer is clearly intended to be a game about digging around in dungeons for cool loot, it doesn't have to be. The central time mechanic of time passing because the players chose to do something is really quite simple and takes our most basic resource, Time, and put the players in control of it directly. I think we can harness that central time mechanic to make Torchbearer tell other kinds of stories.
As long as those stories are about running out of time.