Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Five Torches Deep - actual review

Have your heard about Five Torches Deep? It's the latest swing at bridging the gap between OSR and 5e. It benefited from the consultation of big name RPG celebrity Ben Milton, so that's helped it get some attention. It was written by Ben and Jessica Dutter, and several others worked on art and graphics.

Not bad, but the murkiness is a sign of things to come

I was pretty impressed and intrigued by its laser-like focus on bringing that OSR feeling to 5e, so I bought the physical copy. Part of this was motivated by the fact that the physical layout was touted as being very table-ready. A lot of people are focusing on the physical UX these days, and that's a good thing.

So what do I think? Well, it's pretty good. There are some solid mechanics and its very nicely laid-out. But it's not perfect. As for the primary mission of sneaking some OSR chocolate into your players' peanut butter, I think it's similarly a mixed bag with a lot of positives.

Most importantly: is this a good product for you? We're going to have to get into the weeds a bit to answer that question, so get your hedge-clippers and follow me over the fold.

(Metaphors aren't always my strong suit.)

So here we are, in the weeds. I'm going to take you on a journey through the rulebook, basically cover-to-cover. We're going deep, so to speak, on Five Torches Deep.

That's a very insistent finger!

Starting at the first two-page spread, FTD lays it all out, summarizing it's mission (OSR injection into 5e) and its central concepts. It gets right to the point.

A quick word about the aesthetic qualities. I like the lay-flat staple binding and wide format pages - it works for this page count and purpose. The cover is intriguing and attractive. The interior art is a bit bland, and the colors are murky. They're not terrible, but I didn't find any of it to be memorable.

Now we jump into character creation. First off, we choose a race, and FTD does that a bit differently. You get the three classic demi-humans i.e. dwarf, elf and halfling. What sets them apart is that they roll their abilities a bit differently (flat 13 for two favored abilities, roll 2d6+3 for everything else), have ability requirements (13+) for certain classes, and...that's it. They don't even have infravision or anything like that.

This art is big on the pointy ears

It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The abilities are a little boosted for non-humans, but the ability requirements for certain classes don't really provide any balancing. They just enforce a little bit of genre-appropriateness.

Next up, we learn that most XP come from GP, and all the classes advance at the same rate. The first is very OSR, the second very 5e. I'm totally fine with both.

Then we get into the classes. We have just the basic four: zealot (what they call the cleric), warrior, mage and thief. But each of these has an archetype (sort of a sub-class) which you get to pick at 3rd level. This will dictate some of your special feats as you level up. It's a simple and cool system.

This system keeps the 5e proficiency bonus, something I've never completely embraced. I've always thought the game should have a couple levels of proficiency for things the class might progress at more slowly - like combat for a wizard.

One nice mitigating factor that FTD adds to the mix is the distinction between simple and martial weapons. Martial weapons do more damage as a rule, and only warriors are proficient in them. It's a nice way to give fighters a mechanical bonus to damage that's explained a little better than class-based damage.

"Winding my crossbow," is what you said you were
doing when you just didn't want to hang out

A little quibble: the game treats the crossbow as a martial weapon. Part of the advantage of the crossbow, in the context of actual history, is that it was much easier to train than the bow. Meanwhile, this game treats the hunting bow as a simple weapon. I think it would have been fair compensation to let the crossbow be an exceptional simple weapon in terms of damage in exchange for its slow reload time.

Other equipment rules are pretty nice. Armor and encumbrance are kept simple, as they always should. Magic item attunement - that's a 5e thing, so I'll let it slide. Much more interesting is FTD's approach to managing supplies. It allows an adventurer to pack abstract Supply points that can be used to replenish anything they run out of. The catch is that they must have bought at least one of something for Supply to be used to refresh it. So you can't turn Supply into arrows if you never bought a single arrow.

I also like the rules for Durability, which is a simple system for damage to inanimate objects. The nice thing about this mechanic is that it translates ably into that classic houserule that you can let your shield be shattered to ignore a hit. In this case, you can subtract the shield's Durability, in whole or part, from the damage inflicted by an attack.

Unfortunately, this is followed by a woefully incomplete section on crafting. The rules suggest the GM stage multiple rolls to craft an item based on the different stages of creation, and each stage takes half a day. That's...pretty useless. Nothing about material and skill requirements. And no guidelines on how many stages an object requires. How many stages is a house? If it's half a day per stage, that's a lot of possible rolls to fail!

Sure, why not?

The next spread is a crucial one: saving throws, combat and damage. Juicy stuff! Combat is very barebones OGL, so I'm always happy with that. But...I don't see any rules for falling damage in this entire book. I guess you can actually rule that on the spot (or during prep) pretty easily. But still, that's a weird omission.

The game introduces the idea of a travel turn, which seems to bridge a few concepts: rests in 5e, wandering monster checks, and something like GM "moves" from Dungeon World. Rolling once per travel turn (i.e. hour) on a table of abstract outcomes can be used by the GM to decide on what happens. I think this can work pretty well, but some GMs may really feel that it's too abstract. I think that an adventure region should supply a wandering monster table to go along with the travel turn table.

The idea of "rolling to return" is to abstract the return trip from the adventure into a "roll for misadventure." Sort of like one last wandering monster check. Not really my thing, but workable. Did they get the idea from TOR/AiME?

After this come rules for resilience (i.e. how long you can adventure in an unbroken stretch) and exhaustion (i.e. what happens when you keep adventuring). It's pretty simple and workable, but I feel these mechanics are an odd choice when the game abstracts travel and crafting so much.

Now we run into what I consider to be a significant omission. FTD introduces the concept of "corruption," which is meant to include poison, disease, and presumably magical infections and the like. Presumably, you could even use a system like this to model sanity.

No rules!

Unfortunately, this is another sub-system where concrete examples are replaced with vigorous hand-waving. Here's the problem: in the whole rulebook, I didn't find one description of a poison. The rules give one example of a character being poisoned, but they only show what happens when the character fails a series of rolls, and then dies. Given that the mechanics here are actually more complicated than what you find in OSR or 5e, this is one place that FTD really fails for me.

The next chapter is magic, and there's a lot of cool stuff. For instance, casting slots are gone, replaced by casting rolls. Very DCC! What sets cantrips apart is that they don't require a casting roll. Nice! Unlike 5e cantrips, these are truly weak spells, so it's not abusive that spellcasters can spam them.

However, it's not all roses. One problem with the spell check is that every time you fail, not only do you lose the ability to cast that spell for the rest of the day, but you suffer a mishap. Mishaps can be severe, like the caster taking spell level x D6 damage. Considering that mages get experience level x D4 HP, that can be deadly.

And while part of the DCC mechanics for spell check are used, not all of them. Overall, FTD doesn't make spellcasting very fun once you get past cantrips. Every casting is way too risky.

Oh shit, Mickey, this is going to get rough

I think that can be easily reformed. DCC wisely confines such mishaps to fumbled checks (natural 1's), so I would follow suit.

The spell list itself is nice and compact. Five spells for each of five levels, for both arcane and divine magic. All on a two-page spread, naturally. It should be easy enough for the GM to invent new spells in this mold.

The next major section is devoted to NPCs and monsters. Overall, I was disappointed with this chapter. All the mechanics for generating monsters are besides the point in an OSR game, right? Balance is less important and fast rulings are the order of the day. There's no way any table of special abilities can do more than provide examples, so why bother? The space would have been far better served by more examples of monsters.

The book wraps up with GM advice. Again, a mixed bag. The section on planning was more plot-driven than I'd expect, whereas the OSR style of play tends to be a lot more sandbox-oriented. The Rubik's Cube-based system for generating dungeons was cute, but not really my thing. It's really just another die-drop table (i.e. six colors = d6). I rarely use these sorts of things unless they are very focused, like the derelict generator rules in the Dead Planet adventure for Mothership.

This cube leads to adventure!

Is Five Torches Deep an excellent game? Does it succeed in what it attempts to do? "Partly," is my answer to both questions. There are too many gaps and odd choices to be a total success.


  1. Replies
    1. My pleasure! I need to come back and drop a couple more reviews. I have some things to say about Warlock...

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