The Modern Old School

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The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 2:36pm on 06 May 14

Lots of discussion about the OSR recently has sent me scuttling back to my hard drive where I've dug out a copy of Torchbearer. I flicked through it on release (not that long ago really) but none of it stuck at the time. I think I'll note down my observations as I go though it, just to see what sparks interest if anything.

It's from the same stable that brought us Burning Wheel, Burning Empires, Freemarket and Mouse Guard. I have three of those four on my shelves, but can't say I've ever played more than the odd one shot with any of them. This one bills itself as between BW and MG in complexity, and indeed it seems to use the same skeleton of system.

Setting and genre wise, this is supposed to be a modern take on the Old School method of play that B/X D&D generated at tables in the 80s. It takes the exploration and treasure hunting part of that game and makes it the focus here. That's cool. For me, that was always my fave part of D&D, more so than magic items, castle keeping or planar shenanigans. TB also provides a nice view of adventurers: it places them in a professional world. Too far down the family line to inherit land, or join the military, or the clergy. Not interested in farming the land either. Instead, the adventurer is the desperate choice, willing to risk life and limb to climb down ropes into dark monster infested holes in order to scrape up as much gold as they can. I like this approach. My games always have heroes at their centre, usually pretty shiny to be honest. These guys are more like you get from WFRP or out of a Joe Abercrombie novel.

The preamble of the game is a bit daunting. There's 200 pages of reasonable crunch to navigate, and the GM has a heavy load. Straight out the author says it's not a one shot game, advising that it will take 10-20 sessions to truly bed in. Wow. That's quite a demand from any game, but I'm glad to see it called out now rather than ignored. Loads of games need a few sessions to really hit their stride, and I know I've bailed too early on some in the past. Even so, 10-20 sessions? Big ask.

Let's see if I can finish the read through first!
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Newt » 2:43pm on 06 May 14

Sounds like you've got as far as I have with a read through. To be honest the whole "This is a Hard game" aspect of it depending on my mood is either a complete turn off or a red flag to a bull. so far It feels like an experiment in games design rather than something that would be fun to play. I was hoping it would be the same Burning Wheel Lite that Mouse Guard was.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Totally Guy » 3:50pm on 06 May 14

I have run the game a few times and played it once with Dro. I was looking to put it on the schedule at UK Games Expo however their requirement for me to run for at least 5 players had me withdraw it. I may still run it in a free-play environment, I don't know though, I've never done Expo before.

The Moldvay Basic D&D was a big source of inspiration for those guys and I read last year. The BWHQ guys they effectively suggested reading it as if it were a keenly-focussed indie-game. That's an interesting excercise!

I wasn't gaming back when the old school was happening and I've not made it into a straight old-school dungeon game yet. I would like to at some point.

Dungeon World is another of these new games for the old school experience and I've had a great time with that one. It feels like Torchbearer's clean and charismatic neighbour.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby simonpaulburley » 4:47pm on 06 May 14

Didn't I see TORCHBEARER described on Story Games as being for people who liked "resource management". The accountancy part of original D&D did have its own appeal.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 5:13pm on 06 May 14

Quick note on format and style: the book is B&W throughout. Unless I'm mistaken it uses the same font as the Moldvay Basic D&D books. Sigh. I don't mind little easter eggs on occasion, but this reminds me of all those cheap OSR products on DriveThru with blue and white dungeon maps and coloured jackets. That facsimile job doesn't do it for me I'm afraid.

Art wise, it's sparse, but good standard line stuff. The cover has skeletons with swords which I really dig. One of my fantasy touchstones is Jason and the Argonauts. I've always thought those stop motion skellies were brilliant. It also includes the work of the very wonderful Russ Nicholson. If you've ever seen a Fighting Fantasy book you know his stuff. I guess that makes it a bit throwback like the formatting, but I can forgive this based on artistic merit (as judged entirely and solely by my own likes of course)
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby w00hoo » 5:56pm on 06 May 14

Totally Guy wrote:I have run the game a few times and played it once with Dro. I was looking to put it on the schedule at UK Games Expo however their requirement for me to run for at least 5 players had me withdraw it. I may still run it in a free-play environment, I don't know though, I've never done Expo before.

The Moldvay Basic D&D was a big source of inspiration for those guys and I read last year. The BWHQ guys they effectively suggested reading it as if it were a keenly-focussed indie-game. That's an interesting exercise!


I've played a double session of it over G+. I'll happily rant about it face to face some time, but don't want to derail the thread here. I'm quite Indie in my preferences, it wasn't for me, crunchy like peanut butter with glass in it.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 8:51pm on 06 May 14

Building you character is a process, and the book walks you through it one step at a time. Having the character sheet nearby will help. It's quite elaborate, but not as complex as it first looks. You'll need a veteran to help, or a couple of read through a. That's down to the tendency to announce terms without explaining them yet. Still, it's fun to jump in and follow your nose, see what comes out.

First up, Class and stock (race). They are not seperated fully. You can't be a dwarf magician.
The Elves dwarves and halflings feel a bit... Tolkieny. There's singing. And yearning. Not sure how this lines up with the sweaty unshaven vibe I picked up earlier. We will see. Classes are: adventurer, burglar, cleric, magician, ranger or warrior. I want to know what the adventurer is! Oh, it's the dwarf, that's all. Hey, they really are joined up like in B/X, there's actually only 6 choices. Ok.

You do get cool life path decision based questions, which are fun to answer even if they're a bit po-faced. What else? Clerics can't have edged weapons. Kit goes into slots. This takes up the whole back of the sheet. Hmmm. Spells are rolled randomly.

The spells do have evocative names, way less functional than B/X. For instance the Cleric gets "fury of the lords of life and death" except with Capitals.

Alignment =law:chaos:unaffiliated

Beliefs Instincts and Goals. I recognise these from other Burning things. They're a bit Aspecty, and you even get Fate Points for invoking them. You do your Goal once the GM has laid out the adventure. That's a nice touch.

Wises. Knowledge skills, but you can use them in three distinct ways, and each way gives you a bit of experience meaning you can eventually change your wise. Record keeping yes, encourages use to get checks, also yes.

Traits. Like prebuilt aspects. You get extra dice on invoking. You're encouraged to use them to get into trouble, and the reward is roleplaying glory! Except you also get 'checks' which you spend outside the dungeon for cool stuff. You're encouraged to be creative so the first thing I'd want to do is think up better names than Firey or Tall.

Finally stats! Called abilities here. There's Will, Health and Nature. The first two get used for all sorts, the third is like the Hero Point generator with a list of rules as long as your arm for it. Nature comes from your stock, so they're kind of like Dwarfiness points for when it all gets a bit Dwarfy. Then there's circles and resources, which are Town abilities, so get used in other parts of the game. This has been alluded to before but it looks like there are different phases to play put, of which only one is the Dungeon delve bit. There's also Camp, Town and Winter.

At this point I have to say I feel like I'm reading the manual of a board game. And I quite like it.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby MrLloyd » 2:56pm on 07 May 14

It's quite possible it would work better as a board game. Albeit a board game with the complexity of Arkham rather than say Settlers.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Totally Guy » 4:28pm on 07 May 14

I say you don't need to worry about the distinction so much. If you play it as if it's a board game you end up with roleplaying anyway.

If I want to earn some fate foints I've got to choose a good belief and goal within the scope of the game. Then I've got to play to that. I want to choose an instinct that'll activate frequently.

I might game nature so that it's very high and I do those things within it and use it for untrained skills or I might start out with it very low and use the beginners luck rules.

I would need to describe how my traits impact the scene, for good and for ill. I need to describe those flaws in play to get the extra screen time in camp.

I have to decribe to live. I have to react to opponents considering my good skills and those of my companions. I have to invent ways of assisting the team so that I can pass on my helping die.

The game will trick you into roleplaying if you aim to play effectively.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 5:19pm on 07 May 14

Totally Guy wrote:I say you don't need to worry about the distinction so much. If you play it as if it's a board game you end up with roleplaying anyway.

If I want to earn some fate foints I've got to choose a good belief and goal within the scope of the game. Then I've got to play to that. I want to choose an instinct that'll activate frequently.

I might game nature so that it's very high and I do those things within it and use it for untrained skills or I might start out with it very low and use the beginners luck rules.

I would need to describe how my traits impact the scene, for good and for ill. I need to describe those flaws in play to get the extra screen time in camp.

I have to decribe to live. I have to react to opponents considering my good skills and those of my companions. I have to invent ways of assisting the team so that I can pass on my helping die.

The game will trick you into roleplaying if you aim to play effectively.


Great observation.

I should explain my 'board game' comment. I don't mean it as a slam, quite the opposite. I'd rather play a good board game than a poor RPG any day. Board games, especially the modern ones, are often intricate and beautifully honed experiences, that I think many indie RPGs certainly have learned from. (This opinion has always made me chuckle when I've had to listen to Internet edition warriors call my beloved 4e a board game as if that would really cut me to the quick. I take it as a compliment.)

I actually don't think TB is presenting itself as a board game at this point. It's got way more words than numbers in the chargen piece I've read through so far. Where is is more board game like is in the tone, and the instructional manner of the text. It's very processy, with a smear of flavour on top. This is where I get board game from, but equally it could be video game instructions, or card game. Actually, instructions is exactly the right word. So far this is an instruction manual more than a rule book. I suspect this is intentional. In another forum, Newt said he'd read this in a German accent to himself. That's brilliant, and really tells you a lot about the tone!

(Speaking of card games, I'm having a world of good times playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game with my weekly group right now. It's another viable Modern Old School game in many ways. I might bang on about it in another thread.)
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 5:25pm on 07 May 14

This game has skills. Cheaters! No way is that Old School! One of them is even called Fighter just to rub it in a bit. Still, without a d20 to be seen anywhere (this game uses straight up d6s in pools) we've already gone off the OSR piste somewhat.

Skills chapters can be dry old things to read, especially in generic games ("Driving. This skill is used when you want to drive things.") In some games though, you can get a real flavour for both tone and setting from the skills. This is one. At first blush the skills look remarkably basic medieval citizen, with Labourer and Cartography making the cut. Then you read on and see that those skills are absolutely essential in the world of the professional adventurer. How are you going to get that gold plated life sized statue up those spiral stairs without so,e trained lifters and carriers? And how are you even going to find your way to those stairs without Rickard's skill with a quill and a measure?

It also gives me enormous pleasure to tell you that the book contains the skill Pathfinder.

Back to Gear. The list is straight out of Basic, but the implementation is not. Encumbrance is just one of those things that often gets jettisoned from campaigns at the outset. Arguably, this game is all about encumbrance. Every item takes up a slot on the body of the adventurer, from hands to neck to packs and sacks. You'll record rations and water, torches and spikes. It seems easy enough to do to be honest, easier than adding up individual weights. I predict this will all be rather important later on.

Speaking of which, armour gets knackered in fights. That's why the Armourer skill is sexier than it first looked.

Yeah, it's worth spending time on the kit to be honest. There's not loads to go through, but you wouldn't want to overlook, say, garlic or wine. It reminds me very much of my old AD&D days where starting equipment was a bit of an art and a science. Eventually you got good at using implements for things they weren't designed for. I could get through a lot of Tomb of Horrors with just some chalk and a small steel mirror. Later iterations of the game went magic items heavy and left behind the 10' pole and the 50' rope, much to my sadness. So far in Torchbearer, there's nary a sight of Tensers Floating Disk, but lantern oil is an absolute must buy.

Weapons. Uh oh. This is leaving D&D behind at a pace now. Yes, it's still all longswords and slings, but they have manoeuvres, and they have conflicts. There is a chart. I don't understand it yet. This excites me.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby GuyMilner » 10:53pm on 07 May 14

As a somewhat unrelated aside, after finally shelling for Numenera I am totally wanting someone who knows their stones to do a old-school fantasy hack for it. Which is missing the point a little, I guess, but still, the system is delicious.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Totally Guy » 11:27pm on 07 May 14

Baz King wrote:So far in Torchbearer, there's nary a sight of Tensers Floating Disk, but lantern oil is an absolute must buy.


Spell's called Mystic Porter. My elf had it when I played. (Still didn't manage to successfully cast it though.)
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Evilgaz » 12:22am on 08 May 14

Aw man, there's something similar in Earthdawn circa 1990ish. It might even be a spell called Porter. Its no Throne of Air, but having extra weight allowance is the bomb.
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Re: The Modern Old School

Postby Baz King » 7:17am on 08 May 14

Earthdawn gets called out in the Bibliography too. (I sneaked ahead for a cheeky look). The only reason I can see for that is the way spell levels are called circles.

Speaking of which, it's the magic chapter next.
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