I’m a game procedure junky. I love seeing a system design built to address specific styles of play. When I learned about “Five Torches Deep”, I knew I wanted to take a look. I solicited one of the game designers for a copy, and they obliged.
What You Get
You can get a PDF 📖 and/or print-on-demand copy of Five Torches Deep from DriveThruRPG. I’m reviewing the PDF copy, but intend to purchase a hard-copy. I’m waiting until Keith Baker releases his “Exploring Eberron” book on DriveThruRPG so I can save on shipping.
The PDF has a great table of contents available in my PDF reader of choice (Mac OSX Preview). The PDF table of contents reflects the “printed” table of contents.
Here’s the chapter headings:
Let’s dive into those chapters.
What is This?
Five Torches Deep (FTD) strips 5E 📖 to its skeleton and fleshes it out with OSR 📖 elements. The goal is to provide an old-school experience to those familiar with 5e. It’s self-contained and playable as is, assuming familiarity with fantasy rpgs.
This page introduces the PDF. The authors skip the “what is an RPG 📖 ” and “dice notation” section. Instead they focus on a quick primer, why they wrote the game, an introduction to the OSR, and how Five Torches Deep differs from 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Below is the “Why” section, which I find helpful to understand as there are a plethora of other OSR clones, simulacra, and descendants.
FTD 📖 is meant to ease the introduction of OSR mechanics and principles to those familiar with 5E. The classes and monsters are (largely) compatible with 5e, and can be plugged in and out as you see fit. The more FTD you add, the more “OSR” it feels.
I want to call out the section “No Dump Stats” as I believe this is one of what I suspect to be the major design driver, and one that I welcome. In 5th Edition, Intelligence is something that almost everyone can ignore. Whereas in 3rd edition, Intelligence determined your skill points. But as I said, we’ll dive into how each ability matters later on.
Ability scores play just as much role in the game as ability modifiers (such as a PC 📖 ’s Str 📖 score determining how much they can carry, or their CON 📖 score showing how many hours they can travel without rest, or their CHA 📖 score limiting their max retainers). The “sub-optimal” abilities of other games have been bolstered to encourage ability variety.
There are four races: Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. The mechanical difference between the races are solely in their ability generation and class restrictions unless minimum ability scores are met.
|Race||Str||DEX 📖||CON||INT 📖||WIS 📖||CHA|
Five Torches Deep provides four classes: Warrior, Thief, Zealot, and Mage. Each class has three archetypes that grant benefits and proficiences.
Character’s gain their proficiency bonus to checks relevant to their class and archetype. For example, a Warrior class gains profiency in coordination, tactics, will, and their archetype. The barbarian archetype gives proficiency in intimidation, endurance, and travel related checks. Whereas the fighter archetype gives profiency in medicine, engineering, and diplomacy. This style of proficiencies echoes Whitehack and the 5th Edition optional rule tying proficiency to background. It removes the explicit skill list with a bit of a conversation about what does skilled in “tactics” mean?
This chapter lists the weapons, armor, and other miscellaneous equipment. The chapter also introduces load, encumbrance, attunement, supply, foraging, equipment durability, crafting, and repair.
Weapons and armor are typical fair, contributing to your load; Heavier things contribute 2 or more load.
Unlike 5th Edition, all melee weapons use Strength for attack and damage bonuses. Likewise, all ranged weapons use Dexterity to determine attack and damage bonuses. Some weapons allow you to choose to use a different ability modifier for damage (e.g. for a crossbow, you can choose DEX or WIS for damage; for a halberd, you can choose STR or INT; for a great bow, you can choose STR or DEX).
There is a note that the GM 📖 may rule that qualities or descriptors alter this. In other words, there is no rules as written for finesse melee weapons that use Dexterity as the ability to calculate attack and damage bonuses.
A character has a load equal to their Strength ability score (not bonus). Carrying capacity often derives from Strength. If your load exceeds your Strength, you are encumbered, suffering disadvantage on all checks. Each point of load over your Strength also reduces your speed by 5'.
The sibling to load is supply (or SUP) which is based on a characters Intelligence ability score. An atypical use for Intelligence, but one that I welcome, even though its a bit ambiguous in its mechanical explanation. I find the rules for supply to be a bit murky. First, lets look at the text.
Each PC has supply (SUP) up to their INT score. This is how much resupply the PC brought and represents their ability to plan ahead with what they might need to bring.
You lose some SUP each time you replenish an expendable item (like a torch). You regain SUP by succeeding at a check to forage or cannibalize an item. You can buy supply in a town or caravan (usually 1 gp 📖 per SUP).
SUP can’t create new things while adventuring. SUP can only replenish or replace the spent, consumed, or lost. SUP only works for items that the PC stated were brought prior to the start of the adventure (not serve as “quantum equipment”).
The GM has the final say on how much SUP something costs, keeping in mind its rarity, value, and size. An antitoxin is small but because of its specificity it has a high SUP.
Once a PC has insufficient SUP to replenish their item of choice, they can no longer use that item. Reaching 0 SUP prevents the PC from replenishing any consumable gear. A PC can choose to carry less than their max SUP prior to leaving on a quest.
Five SUP is one load. SUP is rounded to the nearest 5 per load (e.g. 14 SUP is 3 load, and 11 SUP is 2 load). SUP can be split among the party, so long as no one exceeds their max.
Throughout game play, characters can also spend turns Like the Basic/Expert (BX) game at the foundation of much of the OSR, there are procedures and consequences for the passage of time in Five Torches Deep. We’ll get to these consequences in the Gameplay section. to forage for supply.
Below I list some examples of supply:
- Arrows (for one fight): 1 supply
- Lock picks (1 failed check): 1 supply
- Lantern oil (3 hours): 1 supply
- Spell components (per level): 2 supply
- Healing kit (one use): 2 supply
My reading on this leaves me filling in a few gaps. When my character starts out on their adventure, they declare items that they are bringing with them.
Example 1: From the above list I’m bringing arrows, lock picks, lantern oil, and a healing kit. I have a Strength of 14 and an Intelligence of 13. I choose to bring my full supply (13). That costs me 13 gp . My supply adds 3 to my load. In my reading, when I choose to fire arrows in a combat, I would need to immediately spend 1 supply to have those arrows to fire.
Example 2: From the above list I’m bringing arrows, lock picks, lantern oil, and a healing kit. I have a Strength of 14 and an Intelligence of 4. I choose to bring my full supply (4). That costs me 4 GP. My supply adds 1 to my load. Can I do this? As the sum cost of my supplied items exceeds my intelligence?
In the character section, the starting equipment appears to contradict my reading but doesn’t provide clarity. For example, a Warrior’s Equipment includes “Healer’s kit (1 load, 2 SUP to refill).” The SUP is consistent, but the load is not. In addition the language of the class implies that each piece of equipment comes with a “free” first usage that costs some load. The inconsistencies are minor but somewhat vexing. I believe a more clear system would be to have an equipment list that enumerates an items load and its SUP cost to replenish. You would also carry resupply, each five points of SUP would add one (1) to your load. I believe that is the intention, but again, its murky in its presentation.
Moving past the supply section, the rules explain that characters may equip and use a number of magic items, excluding consumables, equal to 1 or their Charisma modifier (whichever is higher). Another instance in which an ability score matters. Some items require attunement. You may only attune to one magic item.
Rounding out the equipment section, Five Torches Deep goes into the wear, tear, and repair of equipment. An interesting section. When you roll a one (1) on an attack, your weapon loses a point of durability. Likewise, when someone hits you with a natural twenty (20), your armor loses a point of durability.
So long as an item has remaining durability, you can repair it. This takes time.
There is a small section on crafting items, walking through the four checks to make an item: forge, prepare, assemble, and hone.
Here we get to the heart of the game: Saving Throws, Actions, Combat, Death, Recovery, Morale, and Travel. I’ll spare the full details and look to the highlights and major variances.
The rules state that you determine initiative order by Dexterity. No roll. The higher Dexterity score goes first.
The positioning section provides convenient abstractions regarding distance. One caveat, with allowances for both precise distances and abstract distances, you need to consider how movement rates interact. As a GM, were I to use the Close, Ranged, Far abstraction, I would look to checks on how to close those distances. These checks would be modified based on movement rates. Perhaps something similar to Fate Core’s zones would make sense?
Positioning: If you have a superior tactical position, such as multiple allies flanking a target, the GM may grant advantage to your checks.
Stealth: a character successfully in stealth can’t be directly targeted. Once they attack their stealth ends. Stealth DCs 📖 can vary by circumstances, or can even be impossible. Range: all weapons and spells have a listed range, or what distance they work in combat. Distance is measured in feet on a battlemat or grid, or can be broken into three categories: close, ranged, and far. Close allows melee attacks and causes ranged attacks to suffer disadvantage; ranged is beyond melee reach but ideal for most ranged weapons; and far is beyond weapons or spells but still visible.
Tactical Superiority: The players’ choices and cleverness should be rewarded in play, with GMs granting advantage or even automatic success. If one side’s position, weapons, or environment are wildly superior then no rolls are needed.
I like the differentiation between tactical combat and a more theater of the mind.
Injury, death, and recovery cleaves closer to the OSR, again with a slight tweak. When you drop to zero (0) hit points, you are dying. Someone will need to stabilize you in one (1) minute or by the end of the fight (whichever happens later).
Once stabilized, you roll on Table 181:Five Torches Deep: Injury Table . This tones down some OSR systems in which characters die when they drop to zero (0) hit points. However, it looks unforgiving compared to 5th Edition.
|1||A false hope, you're dead|
|2||Feeble: lose 1d6 STR|
|3||Shaky: lose 1d6 DEX|
|4||Weak: lose 1d6 CON|
|5||Addled: lose 1d6 INT|
|6||Confused: lose 1d6 WIS|
|7||Disfigured: lose 1d6 CHA|
|8-13||Lose a body part|
|14-19||Disadvantage on all checks until a rest|
|20||Standing: instantly heal 1d8 HP 📖|
|On a roll of two or greater, they return to 1 HP (or more if they received healing)|
Unlike 5th Edition, natural hit point recovery is slower. You regain 1 hit point per night’s rest in an unsafe location. You regain 1 hit point per level per night’s rest in a safe location. Slowing down the hit point recovery helps move the campaign calendar along. It’s hard to imagine a game of Five Torches Deep in which the character’s raise to level nine (9) in the span of a season’s time. Going from level one (1) to nine (9) in 5th Edition can easily happen in a season’s time. With this recovery rule, and the costs of travel, adventurers better have a solid plan for delving into a remote dungeon.
Time keeping and turnsget more support and procedural clarity than 5th Edition, but provide plenty of space for the GM to make a ruling.
Table 182:Five Torches Deep: Travel Turn Table enumerates the roll and results of each travel turn. In the dungeon, a travel turn is one (1) hour of in-fiction gameplay, which is about 3-4 rooms/scenes/fights. For overland travel (eg. getting to the dungeon) a travel turn is one (1) day.
|1||Terrible, immediate threat||
|2-10||Something bad happens soon||
|11-19||Threat worsens or draws near||
|20||Nothing bad, maybe even good|
Further, Five Torches Deep separates procedures for traveling to a location and returning from a site.
Rolling to Return
If there’s insufficient time to roleplay the party’s return to a safe camp scene by scene, the GM can have each player roll to return. This roll is a check, with each PC rolling with a mod equal to their highest modifier (including proficiency). The GM decides if the path to safety is dangerous or arduous.
DC = 10 + 1 per travel turn, max DC 20.
Success means the PC returns to safety without issue. Failure has a cost as described below, depending on the nature of the path.
- Dangerous: 1d6 damage per 1 under DC
- Arduous: lose 1 load of equipment per 1 under the DC
If the PC is reduced to 0 HP, they die or are left unconscious. This damage ignores armor and can’t be healed or avoided. The GM picks what if any load is dropped, starting with less valuable and less secure items, and working up to weapons and armor.
The Rolling to Return procedure For my purposes, I think I’d make a random table to impose consequences on a failure provides a nice quick mechanism to get everyone back to a safe spot by the end of the session; Something that any West Marches style game can leverage. A West Marches game, as written about by Ben Robbin’s is one that has an open table, where the players may vary from session to session. A common conceit is that by the end of the session, all of the characters have returned to a safe location.
Another variance is chases and retreats. Retreats allow player characters to take an action to attempt to break out of combat. Chase rules allow one group to pursue another group. There is ambiguity if retreats are available to monsters and non-player character opposition. What I like about the retreat system is there is a clear mechanism for a player character to try to remove themselves from combat.
Once they have successfully retreated the opposition cannot affect the player character that retreated. The opposition can attempt to chase them to draw them back into conflict. Once the player character has retreated and evaded any pursuers, they may Roll to Return to the safety of camp or to the rest of the party. I like this rule a lot. Everyone that chose to retreat has separated and now need to roll to regroup.
The last variance in Gameplay that I’ll draw attention to is the Resilience mechanic. Below is the rules.
Each PC has resilience equal to their CON score. Resilience is the number of hours (or travel turns) a PC can adventure without food or rest (e.g. a PC with 10 CON can trek ten hours). The GM can reason that overland travel or other elements “damage” a PC’s resilience, but must alert the PC as such.
The GM can call for a resilience check (1d20 + CON mod) once the PC has adventured for more hours than their resilience.
The DC is 10 + the number of hours beyond the PC’s resilience. Failure means that the PC becomes exhausted. Repeated resilience checks can result in automatic failure, HP damage, injury, or even unconsciousness.
This provides a nice and simple mechanic for helping reinforce the timekeeping aspect. It should be noted that Exhaustion behaves differently that 5th Edition. An exhausted character suffers disadvantage on all checks, has a move speed of 0'. In other words, if you push yourself, you may get stuck where you are at. The severity of exhaustion echoes the Rolling to Return dangerous/arduous failure costs, but also within these two sub-systems there is an unstated interplay. Consider a player character with a ten (10) CON, that has adventured for eight (8) hours and seeks to Roll to Return for a distance of four (4) travel turns. What is the order of precedence?
The Magic section melds 5th Edition and OSR games with a splash of Dungeon Crawl Classics.
Spellcasters know a limited number of known spells. To cast a spell they must make a spellcasting check. Failure means the caster cannot cast spells of that level until they rest and the GM imposes some kind of mishap (perhaps rolling on Table 183:Five Torches Deep: Magical Mishap Table ).
Some spells require concentration (similar to 5th edition). All spells can be cast as rituals, which take one hour of concentration per spell level and does not require a spellcasting check. In lieu of spell components, you may use a spell focus (similar to 5th edition).
Spellcasters may cast three (3) cantrips per day. Cantrips do not deal damage nor do they require caster checks.
|1||Caster takes 1d6/spell level damage|
|2-3||All nearby non-magical metal melts|
|4-5||Orb of darkness surrounds the party|
|6-7||Bizarre gravity, heavy or light|
|8-9||Caster emits blinding bright light to all|
|10-11||The spell affects the wrong target|
|12-13||Significant collateral damage|
|14-16||Caster is stunned, CON check to resist|
|17-19||Caster is weak, STR check to resist|
|20||A different random spell is cast|
Five Torches Deep provides terse spell descriptions, leaving room for interpretation.
NPCs & Monsters
In this chapter, Five Torches Deep provides rules for retainers, ordering them around, reactions, renown, and monsters.
Of particular interest, renown represents the character’s notoriety. Each character’s renown equals their highest ability modifier plus their level. When a GM needs to determine if an NPC 📖 is familiar with the character, roll a d20. If the result is equal or under the player character’s renown, then the NPC knows of the character.
The section on monster’s is very useful for building monsters and monster groups. There is a table for monster check modifiers, average hit points, and average damage.
We also get a table of the types of monsters: Brute, Leader, Predator, Shaper, Sniper, and Soldier. Each type of monster has mechanical descriptions.
A leader is weak in: STR, CON, combat, being alone, resistance; and strong in: INT, CHA, magic, commands, with minions.
A predator is weak in: CON, resistance, morale, direct combat; and strong in: INT, offense, stealth, patience, and cunning.
These monster types then feed into four tactics: standard, raid, patrol, and force.
A standard group contains: a brute, a leader, and multiple soldiers. Their tactics are: brute charges and distracts, soldiers fight at range, and leader prioritizes.
A raid group contains: a mix of snipers and predators. Their tactics are: stealth, hit and run, focus fire, predators block PCs 📖 from snipers.
Five Torches Deep also provides a table of monster techniques and descriptions. These techniques provide powers beyond normal melee and missile fire.
The force condition technique can impose a negative condition (e.g. blindness, deafness, paralyzation, etc).
Rounding out the section is a page on building monsters using the above metioned tables and another page with six (6) pre-built monsters.
Running the Game
Five Torches Deep provides an adventure framework, which I include below:
Each session starts with one or more dramatic situations that demand the party’s immediate involvement. The GM defines the below elements for each session:
Incitement: the hook, the first threat, the thing that breaks the ice and gets the players in the mindset of their characters. A quick scene with a few checks, a weak combat encounter, or something thought provoking that makes them pay attention and leads them deeper into the session’s content.
Fork: once they’ve crossed the threshold, the party should be given an obvious fork in the road: a time-sensitive choice that compels them to go down one (potentially) irreversible path. Do they join the lawless rebels or the cruel knights? Do they take the slow and safe path, or the dangerous one?
Obstacles: one or more passive blocks, an environmental or external impediment that makes their goal more difficult to achieve. Weather, terrain, time, resources, etc.
Threats: who directly opposes the party’s goals? The active threats that will violently pursue or reject the PCs? What do they want? When and how do they strike?
Climax and resolution: how can the session dovetail to a satisfying conclusion? What’s the final confrontation or challenge that the PCs must overcome that leads to the gold? Importantly, what happens if the party doesn’t achieve this end?
The above adventure advice creates a compact model to flesh out quick adventures.
A list of principles help frame how the GM should approach the game.
- A Fair Challenge
- Impact & Ingenuity
- Meaningful Choices
- Internal Consistency
- Facilitating Play
Generators and Random Maps round out the chapter. The generators provide a quick means of prodding your imagination. A thing takes action on/towards another thing and success means this kind of fallout. The example in the text is: A warlord wants to seal a deity which leads to growth.
From that simple procedure comes lots of options. A paladin seeks to seal a demon lord thus ensuring prosperity of the paladin’s religion. An oni warlord wishes to seal the god of light ensuring that darkness grows across the land.
There is also a descriptor table with random nature, action, material, emotion, and sensory.
I can safely say, this page alone is worth printing and pasting on one of your GM screen panels.
And then we get to random map generation. Grab your Rubik’s Cube give it several mixes, and consult page 45 to create the map.
Revisiting the claim of “No Dump Stats”
Table 184:Five Torches Deep: Ability Score Usage lists the different ways in which the ability scores matter. While Wisdom looks under-utilized, in game play it is likely an ability that will often contribute to checks (e.g. healing, perception, save vs. spells, etc).
|A character's highest ability modifier determines their renown.|
Buy “Five Torches Deep” if…
- You want a game that sits between 5th Edition D&D (5E) and Old School Renaissance (OSR) games, yet claims its own space.
- You want high quality full-color art of adventurers doing their thing.
- You want a compact self-contained game, yet one that includes conversion guidance.
- You want some sub-systems to consider for your house rules.
- You want a rules set that leaves ample space for rulings.
- You want some insights into monster group composition.
- You want a unique random map generator based on a Rubik’s cube.
Don’t buy “Five Torches Deep” if…
- You want an “open source” game—one released under the Open Game License (OGL) or Creative Commons.
- You are looking for black and white line art.
- You are looking for precise rules.
- You are looking for clear cut conditions (the rules provide no guidance on what “stunned” means nor how to shake it off).