Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane are a pair of indie RPG designers known for their previous games “Burning Wheel” and “Mouse Guard,” based on the graphic novel. Today they’ve launched on Kickstarter a new fantasy RPG, “Torchbearer.” I spoke to them about the unique survival rules of “Torchbearer” and their approach to Kickstarter.
MTV Geek: How did “Torchbearer” start?
Thor Olavsrud: “Torchbearer” started off as a hack of “Mouse Guard.” “Mouse Guard” has all of this really cool wilderness adventure stuff. It really makes playing out crossing rivers, dealing with the environments and the weather really fun and engaging. And I thought it would be interesting to take that experience and move it to a dungeon. So I started to think about what it takes to survive in that environment. We went back and played lots of “Basic D&D” and tried to pull out the things that we loved about it and then add stuff to really bring out this concept. In “Torchbearer,” time really drives the conditions that you get: you become Hungry, you become tired, you become angry, and so on. So the time pressure really drive decisions: Do I go on? Do I stop and make camp? Do we get out of here? We also focused on light, because light is so important underground. If you lose your light source, you might never get out. We are not that quite unforgiving in Torchbearer, but it is very important to get that element in there.
Luke Crane: One of the things that Thor has also perfected is the teamwork mechanics. It’s the same basic fighting system that “Mouse Guard “uses, but Thor has added on another layer that just increases the tension. You have a pool of hit points that represents your team. If you get knocked out of a fight, a teammate can drag you back into a fight, bring you back to your senses. So the fights get very desperate, where it will be one last man standing and trying very hard to out maneuver the opponent, to bring team members back in. It makes combat a lot more dynamic.
Olavsrud: We really fine tuned the conditions. Most of the conditions will be familiar to “Mouse Guard” players, but the consequences are different. And some of them are very punishing. For instance, if you become Afraid, you can no longer help your teammates. You are just too scared to act. Or if you become Sick, it becomes impossible for you to learn, so you can’t advance your skills. So you really don’t want to be Sick.
Crane: Conditions in “Mouse Guard” are pleasant compared to what happens to you in “Torchbearer.” We counteract that where we break up the turn structure of “Mouse Guard”–it’s a lot more fluid now. There’s an Adventure phase, a Camp phase, a Town phase. In actual play, you are just kind of bouncing back and forth between Adventure and Camp. And it’s up to players when they want to camp. You go along, you get beat up, you find a place to hole up, you camp, you rest and try to get rid of your conditions, and then you are back into it. It creates this very organic feel to the game.
Geek: “Torchbearer” shares some rules with your past games, but are your past players the only audience you’re trying to appeal to?
Crane: I think “Torchbearer” is primarily for our audience. I don’t think Thor and I ever had any great pretensions for this game beyond saying, “Hey, let’s make ’Mouse Guard D&D.'” The fact that people are excited about it is great, but I personally I always thought it was just designed to appeal to our fans.
Olavsrud: The way that we always designed games is that we make games that we think are fun and that we want to play. And if other people think that they are fun or other people want to play them, that’s awesome. That’s always been our philosophy.
Geek: For your past games you didn’t have Kickstarter. How does Kickstarter change things?
Crane: We are still self-publishing this. Kickstarter doesn’t change self-publishing. It changes the launch process. We are coming to Kickstarter very late in the design process, though. The game is largely done. We’re just polishing it up. Other people come to Kickstarter a lot earlier than we did. It is a way for us to test the water and see if people are interested in this game. It doesn’t actually change our design process or anything right that. We’ve done preorders and launches every year for the last ten years.
Olavsrud: Obviously the proof will be in the pudding, but at this point it doesn’t feel that different from our preorder process in the past. Probably we will not crash Kickstarter servers the way our games have crashed our own servers in past preorders. Overall, the only real difference is that we’ve had to talk more about our game before we make it available than we’ve had in the past.
Geek: With so many games coming out and getting attention due to Kickstarter, do you feel like it is harder to make a game that stands out?
Crane: We have a pretty deep fanbase at this point. I am not looking to stand out at all. I’m looking to bring our fans to our project page, and let them decide. I can’t stand up to something like “Camelot Unchained” or Zach Braff. And I’m not trying to. But we have very enthusiastic fans that have been with us for many years, that we’ve built up a great relationship with. I hope to bring them to our project, and they want to back us.
Olavsrud: The other element there is that if the Kickstarter takes off, that’s very nice. But our goal is to raise enough money to publish the game. We are not going to offer a lot of swag. We are not going to do stretch goals or anything like that. We really just want to make enough money to put this game out there.
Geek: Luke, I know you work at Kickstarter, what have you learned working with other kickstarted RPGs?
Crane: I think I’m probably worse at Kickstarter because I’ve seen so many projects. My brain is just cloudy with information. I feel like somebody who has fewer assumptions would bring fresh information to it. But it has informed my decision to keep the project very trim. It’s just about printing the book. While we would love to be overfunded, and we have plans if we are overfunded–we can make a prettier book–watching the life of many projects has also informed my lack of love for stretch goals. I think projects get a little out of hand. This is just the beginning of the life of this game for us. This Kickstarter project is not the be-all end-all of this game. We don’t expect to sell every copy we are printing, we don’t expect to make a million dollars on this project. We have lots of additional content that hasn’t made it into the book yet. We will embrace all the fan love and we will return it tenfold, but we have to stay focused on a nice, sane, achievable Kickstarter goal.
Geek: And after five years, the game is finally on Kickstarter.
Crane: It has gone through a number of names and revisions. I must be up to 20 or 30 versions of the character sheet alone. It’s been a long process, but it’s one that has involved playtesting the whole time. So it feels really good. It’s a game, that like all of our games at first glance, seems weird, but once you start playing it, everything makes sense. And like all of our games, it’s a game of skill. You can play this game well. It’s not a simple game. I feel that it is a good heir to our tradition, to our iterative design. I am very excited to see what everyone does with it. We are really hoping that people take the bits and bobs that we laced through it, like the Town and Camp events, and they will create their own. We hope that people create their own classes, create their own settlements, create their own adventures. We are really hoping that we made it simple and obvious enough that people can insert their own details.
Olavsrud: And this is just the beginning for Torchbearer. We have lots of plans and lots of ideas on how we can expand this down the road. We really hope that people like it and we will have a lot more stuff for them if they do.
If you want to support “Torchbearer” head over to its Kickstarter page!