Friday, May 8, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 1: Contents

In this post: summary of the contents and subsystems of Five Torches Deep (hereafter 5TD), a 5e/OSR hybrid system.
Next posts: why I'm not a fan, in excruciating detail

The tl;dr of those complaints:

    • Encumbrance and dumpstats:
      • Encumbrance is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Str compared to both 5e and any retroclone I have ever seen
      • Encumbrance's very sharp transition from "unencumbered" to "overencumbered with very degraded combat capability" removes meaningful choices around how much stuff to carry
      • It doesn't make any sense to design systems to punish dumpstats when ability score generation doesn't allow you to dump particular stats 
    • Supply and equipment:
      • Supply is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Int
      • Supply is full of weird dissociative behavior
      • Equipment degradation is never worth the headache in a tabletop RPG
    • Resilience, corruptions, and maiming 
      • Resilience is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Con and will tend to disable and then kill them very quickly
      • Corruptions are lifted pretty much straight from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but they're much more deadly under 5e's save structure and high-level characters are not substantially more likely to survive them than low-level characters.
      • The maiming table fails to perform the two essential functions of a maiming table: making penalties from near-deaths make sense within the game-world, and providing absolute, impartial fairness around death and penalties
    • Unreliable magic
      • Spellcasters in 5TD suffer (possibly-TPK-inducing) mishaps way more often than spellcasters in any magic system I have ever seen in tabletop gaming, including the Warhammer 40k RPGs
    • Travel vs Exploration
      • 5TD's rules for actually exploring sites in the OSR style, with choices about resource tradeoffs, are nonexistent.  There are lots of resources that suffer attrition, but very few choices about them built into the system itself.
      • There is no formal noncombat exploration game-loop, which is one of the best parts of TSR D&D.
      • 5TD's DMing and dungeon-building advice does not support long-term exploration of single sites in the OSR style.
    • The Homesteads supplement  
      • Feels incomplete; there's a clear place in the middle of the book where there should be a system, but instead it's left to DM fiat.  Little content for money.

    It's cool that this hybrid exists.  I hope it will be the beginning of a genre of hybrids which surpass it.  Given how hard the 5e folks seem to be homebrewing, this seems a more likely outcome than that my fear about 5TD will come to pass.  I fear that it will succeed, and it will come to be seen as representative of the best (or even typical) ideas of the OSR in 5e circles.  I think 5TD does enough things wrong that this could turn a lot of people off from OSR ideas, and a lot of quality gaming might be missed out on.

    5TD Chapter Summaries

    5TD is 48 pages, including the cover, table of contents, and six double-page spreads of artwork at chapter boundaries, so only 36 pages of text.  This is quite compact, even by OSR standards.  The art is...  reasonably-well executed, but it doesn't show any player characters dying horribly, which is surprising.  And having a quarter of the book be art is an awful lot.

    The first two pages after the table of contents are an introduction outlining design goals and core mechanic.  I disagree with some of these design goals, but I think 5TD mostly achieves them.  From the OSR, it cites "Danger is Real", "Cunning Over Crunch", "Magic Is Haphazard", and "Travel & Resources" as guiding principles.  In explaining its differences from 5e, the headings are "Weaker PCs", "Default DC 11", "No Dump Stats", and "New Mechanics", the most important chunk of which is "mechanics that reinforce the tropes of old-school games and the neo-clones that explicitly lean into the tolling [toiling?], souls-esque grindhouse."

    Six pages are allocated to character building, races, classes, and leveling.  Humans roll stats on 3d6 in order and swap any two, non-human races have two stats set to 13 and then roll the rest in order on 2d6+3 and have access to some classes gated by high ability score rolls.  No player race has darkvision, so carrying lighting matters.  XP is earned for GP recovered, and XP to each level increases roughly exponentially (so if you die and have to start over from 0 XP, by the time the rest of the party goes from their current level to the next level, you will end up just one level behind them).  Max character level is 9.  Classes are very simple - each of the Big Four (fighter, thief, wizard, "zealot" / cleric) gets a single page and three archetypes (eg, barbarian is a fighter archetype or subclass).  Starting HP are lower than in 5e, and you get some random rolls on a table for your starting mundane equipment (rope, torches, etc).

    I am on board with almost everything in this chapter.  My one complaint would be that some of the rules text is very compressed, to the point where its intent is not quite clear (eg, Fighter gets an ability "Orders: movement, ally can active action").  My other one complaint is that only assassins can get backstab / sneak attack and it's capped at +2d6.  I also have a few potential concerns/nits around other specific abilities but those are minor.

    Four pages are allocated to equipment, encumbrance, supply, repair, and crafting.  The variety of weapons and armor available is significantly reduced compared to 5e (and frankly many OSR systems).  Weapon damage is mostly increased a bit from 5e, except for two-handed martial weapons (greatsword damage actually goes down by half a point).  There are some weird things going on with some of the weapon and armor mechanics - max possible AC is in light armor with high dex, rather than in heavy armor, and some weapons let you add weird stats to damage (halberd lets you add Int, and crossbow lets you add Wis).  No explanation is given.

    The encumbrance system abstracts weight as points of Load, and you can carry Load up to your Str score.  Going over your Str by even a point of Load carries the pretty serious penalty of disadvantage to all checks and then increasing movement penalties the further over you go, but there are no penalties up to your Str.

    The supply system lets you pack a number of Supply points of abstracted-away misc adventuring gear equal to your Int score, and you can use those points to replenish your consumables, like ammunition, torches, spell components, and rations.

    Weapons and armor degrade with crit fails and critical hits by enemies, and you can spend Supply points to make rolls to repair them.  They have a variant of the Shields Shall By Splintered rule, but...  it only negates one or two points of damage instead of the whole attack, and shields give 2 points of AC instead of 1 like they do in most OSR D&Ds.  So this doesn't seem like it would see play very often (basically only when you expect a blow to kill you if you don't sacrifice your shield).

    The crafting system doesn't specify how much Supply it costs to make stuff, and it takes four consecutive successful rolls, each of which takes half a day, so crafting anything takes about two weeks of work, in expectation.

    Six pages are allocated to gameplay and mechanics.  Combat rules like initiative, types of actions, how to attack, damage, death, maiming, and morale get two pages.  Exploration concerns like timekeeping, traps, light, escaping the dungeon, evasion and pursuit, fatigue, and disease and poison ("corruptions") get the remaining four pages.

    The death and dying rules require an ally to stabilize you, and then you get to roll on the maiming table.  This is a nice middle ground between B/X's "dead at 0 HP" and 5e's "you have like a >50% chance to just get back up with 1HP under your own power".  The maiming table has a small chance of death, a small chance of you're fine, and most of the entries are 1d6 damage to an ability score, loss of a body part, or disadvantage to all rolls until you rest.

    Initiative is deterministic (no rolls), which is very odd.

    Timekeeping during exploration is done in one-hour exploration turns.  This is somewhat loose compared to OSR games where 10-minute turns are the norm, but it saves 5TD from having to talk about combat movement speed vs exploration movement speed.

    The evasion and pursuit rules don't provide much of an advantage to the smaller party (as individual pursuers can chase at their own speed), unlike most OSR evasion and pursuit rules which give small groups a pretty substantial advantage.  These pursuit rules are mostly written from the perspective of PCs chasing things rather than being chased, with PCs being chased as a note at the very end.

    The "roll to return" rules are similar to Justin Alexander's Escaping the Dungeon rules, but very cut down.

    You have to make a roll to retreat from combat.  I'm not really sure why.  It's also odd that this is way back in adventuring rather than with the combat rules.

    The resilience system lets you adventure for 1 hour per point of Con score.  Go beyond that and you have to start making a roll every hour or collapse from exhaustion, with your move speed reduced to zero (0) feet and disadvantage to all rolls.  I'm...  almost wondering if 0' here is a typo, and it should be (say) 10', because you can't rest off exhaustion in an unsafe resting place (like dungeon or hostile wilderness) and healing magic can't remove exhaustion, and your party almost certainly doesn't have the carrying capacity to carry you out (not that weights for characters are provided) so I guess you just get left behind and eventually die.  But then why bother with an exhaustion status, instead of "you die of exhaustion"?

    This is much steeper transition from "functioning normally" to "really messed up" than either 5e's or B/X's exhaustion rules.

    The poison / disease corruptions inflict exhaustion and increasing ability score damage.  They strongly resemble Lamentations of the Flame Princess' disease rules, where after failing the initial save you just keep making saves until it's run its course or you're dead (at 0 in any ability score), rather than the effect ending after a certain quantity of successful saves (as in 3.x, presumably 4e, and to some extent 5e).  The text is rather brief and the one boxed text example ends in the death of the afflicted character so I think that's how they're supposed to work but I'm not 100% sure.

    The magic system, including spell lists, gets four pages.  Spells known are pretty similar to B/X's numbers (so about half of 5e's), but you have to make a roll to cast and if you fail you lose access to spells of that spell level until your next rest in a safe place, and you have to roll on the mishaps table.  Mishaps are fairly severe and could easily swing a combat one way or the other.  There is an option to cast safely but it takes hours.

    Number of permanent magic items you can use / be attuned to is sharply limited to between 1 and 4, depending on your Cha.  An average character can only be attuned to one magic item.

    Spell lists are one page each for divine and arcane, including descriptions of spell effects.  Again, some spell effects are sufficiently brief as to be unclear and rely on prior knowledge of D&D.

    Light cantrip is duration Concentration.  I like this a lot.

    Invisibility moved to 3rd level and duration Concentration.  Odd.

    Silence also moved to 3rd level and duration Concentration.  Odd again.

    Sleep implementation is weird, scales up with level in ways that neither OSR sleep nor 5e sleep do.

    Is the divine Reforge cantrip supposed to totally obviate the need for the weapon and armor repair subsystem?  I guess it only works on mundane items so you can't use it to repair magic gear, but it should make keeping gear in good shape a lot easier for most of the game.

    Turn Undead is a 1st level spell like in LotFP.  Unlike in LotFP, it only affects undead of fewer HD than you have levels, so you can't really punch up with it, but no cap on total HD turned.  Sort of the obverse of sleep's changes, where your total HD slept are more limited but there's no per-creature cap.

    So if I cast fireball (er, furyfire), I have to make an attack modified by Int and proficiency against my targets'...  armor class?  If the party fighter happens to be caught in the blast (surely an honest mistake), his plate helps him avoid a fireball?  Wat?

    Retainers and monsters get six pages.  Retainers get one page, monsters get five.

    Number of retainers you can have is capped by Cha score.  Still, 10 retainers is quite a few.

    Henchmen (leveled retainers who work without pay) aren't available to the average character until 6th level (versus OSR games where they're usually available at like 2nd level and are really handy when you die, because you can just play your henchman and you're already in the dungeon and reasonably-leveled).

    There's an orders subsystem where you can give a mass of retainers orders in combat for some bonuses.

    Renown score is calculated purely from level and ability scores, no influence from actual deeds.

    Reaction rolls exist, but they're on d20 instead of 2d6 and they're not modified by Cha, only renown (and that seems at DM's discretion).

    Four pages on building or converting monsters.  I would not have ordered these pages the way that they were ordered - the page with instructions on how to use the table of monster stats by HD comes last.

    Monsters go up to 18HD.  The "average HP" numbers are not the average you'd get if you actually rolled the stated HD; they err slightly low across most of the HD range.

    Recommendation to halve HP of 5e monsters that are being converted.

    The whole monster building system leaves me sort of ambivalent.  It's very concerned with the tactics of monsters (roles, techniques / special abilities, mixes of roles that you could use for encounters - reminds me of 4e's philosophy of monsters though I haven't read enough 5e to rule out the possibility that that philosophy is still mainstream), not very naturalistic (nothing resembling Number Appearing or % in Lair, for example), nor very concerned about associativity of monster mechanics.  Frankly the only things that feel OSR about this system are that there is no conception of challenge rating and that you don't have to assign ability score values for monsters.

    Guidelines on treasure are very cursory.  Alignment makes a brief appearance but it's basically "supernaturally evil or not supernaturally evil".

    One page of worked-out monster statblocks.  Hobgoblins are 4 HD, much higher than in either 5e or OSR systems.  Monster entries have no XP values, so I think killing monsters gives no XP, only recovering gold and magic items.

    Almost to the end now.  Four pages of DMing stuff.  One page on structuring campaigns and sessions, one on principles for making rulings, one page of random...  plot? generator table, and one page of using a Rubik's cube to help generate dungeons, which gets points for novelty and for the amusement value of watching them studiously avoid saying "Rubik's cube".

    The advice on structuring sessions is...  more narrative than how I do things.  It gives much more truck to narratively-bookending sessions and placing PCs in "dramatic situations" than to letting them explore environments at their own pace, but it does caution against trying to tell a particular story and instead encourages letting PCs make choices between eg factions to ally with.  So it could be worse, especially for DMs coming from environments where "repressed novelist" is prevalent.  And it's not like the old-school source materials didn't have their own share of this problem (the infamous Dragonlance modules spring to mind).

    The principles for making rulings are mostly pretty decent.

    The random connections table is OK, the random descriptors table seems too high-entropy to be very useful.

    Two pages of quick reference, including the only copy of the table for rolling starting mundane equipment.  It doesn't appear in the equipment chapter or the character generation chapter.

    Next post(s): My big structural and philosophical issues with 5TD.  There were some little nitpicks in this post.  Next post's complaints will not be like that.


    1. Looking forward to part 2! This one was on my radar, thanks for reviewing.

    2. Thanks for reviewing, but describing things as "Odd" without further explanation is somewhat confusing.
      It's a game where people pretend to be adventurers form heroic tales, some of them aren't even humans: It's odd from page 1.

      1. I think I used odd here to mean "odd among D&D-alike systems; typical of neither retroclones / TSR D&D nor 5e".

    3. IMHO everything listed as a bug, is a feature to me. I'm just about done with 5e. I'm bored. i've played 5-8 campaigns that went to a minimum of 14th level and frequently 20th. The power gamer aspect of it lost its appeal a while ago. I don't want captain America, i want inglorious Bastards.
      I'm not gonna say there are not a few holes, such as the economy system and at least some examples of magic power levels.
      Encumbrance is simple without being tedious, Supply allows versatility without bogging down downtime, Magic mishaps and Corruption are also delightful without punishing the DM.
      I think the main problem th OP has is the lack of structure, and the power that provides the dm.
      Because it is stripped down, you can mod in anything you like. Economy can be taken from the system of choice, Corruption and magic an be scaled back, Travel can be changed. Personally i mash this with ICRPG and 5e. for my own little taste of Brothers Grimm Dark fantasy. The is a role players action rpg. not a munchkins.

      1. I have no great love for 5e or power fantasy either. But I like it when systems provide players tractable but challenging choices, hard tradeoffs with foreseeable consequences, and opportunities to take risks. If you roll a 3 Con in 5TD, there is no workaround, no choice, no gamble you can make around running out of endurance. You're just fucked. I asked the author what he would do if someone rolled a 3 at his table and he said it hasn't happened yet but he'd probably let them reroll. Does that sound like a well-designed, thoroughly-playtested, robust system to you? One that deserves to be taken seriously?

        My impression from reading 5TD is that it sounds godawful to play by the book, and that it isn't intended to be played by the book at all. Playing it by the book doesn't sound like Low Fantasy, like the Black Company or your Inglorious Bastards; it sounds like Misery-Porn.

        And "you can mod it to make it actually good" is not much of a defense, since that's true of just about any system.