The Independents: Five Torches Deep

The real trouble with edition changes, once you get past the nit-picking, is the missed experiences. Different editions of a game can offer very unique things to their players, but die-hard fans of the older variety miss out on the active ecosystem of the current edition, while newer players miss out on the playstyle of older dungeon delving that they might very well love. Stepping in to bridge the gap is Five Torches Deep from Jessica and Ben Dutter and Sigil Stone Publishing, a “streamlined adventure game combining the best mechanics and principles of 5e, the OSR, and modern game design.” So how bright does FTD  shine? Let’s go chapter by chapter to find out!

Player Characters

FTD doesn’t quite go back so far that the Elf is a class, but it’s close. Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling are the only four race options, and stats are determined by rolling 3d6. Warrior, Thief, Zealot, and Mage are the only four classes, and the levels only go up to 9. Humans can swap up to two of their stats, and that’s all they have going for them. The other races have class restrictions, in that they need certain stats to be of a certain number to qualify: a Dwarf needs a 13+ in Dexterity to be a Thief, for instance, while Halflings need 13+ Strength to be Warriors. For a rather nice trade-off, though, each of the non-human races also has a 13 in two stats without having to roll (for an Elf, it’s Dexterity and Intelligence), actually making them above-average in those stats.

Class offers some basic abilities, starting equipment, and so on. An interesting twist is that skills aren’t really a thing as modern players would recognize them. Instead, there are broad proficiencies which players will have to act in line with in order to use, like senses for the Thief or finesse for the Mage. There’s not a lot to choose once you’ve picked your class . . . but the subclasses/builds we’ve gotten used to still make an appearance with an archetype that grants two benefits over the course of an adventurer’s career. The Fighter will choose between Barbarian, Fighter, and Ranger. The Thief will be an Assassin, a Bard, or a Rogue. Zealots will choose the path of a Cleric, a Druid, or a Paladin. A Mage will wind up as a Sorcerer, a Warlock, or a Wizard. Each of these archetypes will offer new proficiencies, along with features to choose from ranging from Immune to Charm (Bard) to No Need to Eat (Warlock).

Rolling the dice will probably be the longest part of character creation. These are characters that could very much be picked up and thrown into the deep end, and they’d be easy for even newcomers to understand most of what’s going in. This is helped by everything about a class from starting HP to archetype details (with the exception of some of the magic details, which we’ll get to) being on a single page. Not a lot of page-flipping going on with FTD, which is a nice way to keep players in the game.

Equipment

You don’t really get an old-school game unless you’re worried about your gear. Resource management is an integral part of the FTD experience, one might even say the most important part, because of how it helps players to feel like their characters are hardscrabble survivors trying to get ahead in a world out to kill them. Fortunately, there’s not a decimal point to be seen in this item chapter.

Load and Encumbrance are important because they tell us how much an adventurer can carry out into the field (and, if they’re lucky, how much loot they can carry back to civilization). Items can wear out after a certain amount of time (torches probably being the most iconic, given the name), or outright break thanks to critical hits/failures. The good news is that everything can be replenished or replaced by a resource called Supply, or SUP. Determined by your Intelligence score and depicting your character’s ability to plan ahead, SUP can be spent to restore resources in the middle of an adventure. Out of ammo? There’s an extra quiver in my pack. Torches going dim? Don’t worry, brought some spares. This allows the game to keep the characters hungry without burying the players in number-crunching.

Gameplay

It’s D&D, make no mistake about that, but there are some interesting tweaks. The DC for most checks is assumed to be 11, making remembering what the players need to get in order to succeed very easy to keep track of (although DCs can range from 5 to 20 if the GM finds it appropriate). The mechanics for combat will be familiar to anyone who ever played any kind of D&D. Reaching 0 hit points means you’re incapacitated, and if you don’t get healed or stabilized by the  end of the battle or within one minute, whichever comes later, you’re dead. Even if you get stabilized, though, you need to roll 1d20 on an Injury Table; 1 means it was a hope spot that still ends with you dying, 20 means you heal up on your own for 1d8, and the rest are divided between a stat dropping, a limb dropping, or your highest roll dropping (since you’ll have disadvantage until you can rest).

There are rules for how much treasure enemies hold, rules for using traps without being a jerk about them (“the GM must forewarn traps through narrative cues”, no rocks-fall here), morale (something player characters thankfully don’t have to worry about often), fleeing from doomed battles, timekeeping (particularly important since torches are measured by the hour), and travel.

The rules for travel come with a hilariously hostile Travel Turn Table to roll on for every hour of in-fiction time. Only a 20 means “Nothing bad” happens, “maybe even good.” Everything else involves things getting worse, whether a distant threat is rumbling on the horizon or you roll a 1 and face a “Terrible, immediate threat.” Thankfully, that once-every-hour bit is limited to dungeon delving, and the book advises that 3-4 scenes/rooms/encounters should be considered an hour. If you’re traveling overland to the dungeon, you need only roll once per day, up to once per week if traveling on the open sea.

Overall I’d rate the rules as harsh but fair. It looks like surviving in FTD is going to be a challenge, but to violate a certain master’s axiom it doesn’t seem like it’s out to kill your characters. It’s out to try to kill your characters, but will be quite happy to fail so long as you know you were in danger. There’s a particularly important, in my opinion, bit regarding Tactical Superiority: “The players’ choices and cleverness should be rewarded in play, with GMs granting advantage or even automatic success.” That seems fair, and we’re going to come back to that word later.

Magic

As with Equipment, there’s a blend of old-school limitations while not going too far into the number crunching. Yes, components are a thing . . . but they can be ignored if you have a focus, which the Zealot starts with (the Mage will have to find one). Preparing spells? Don’t bother, there’s no need to plan out your day’s spells ahead of time. Still, the Zealot and the Mage each only know 3 Cantrips, none of which deal damage, and the rest of their spells top out at 5th level and are very few in number (although both behave like 5e Clerics and know all of the spells on their respective lists).

Mages get the Arcane Spell List, Zealots get the Divine Spell List, and both are . . . more toolkit than arsenal. Damage-dealing spells exist, for both classes, but the majority of spells are about manipulating the environment or messing with your opponents instead of just lighting them on fire. To me, this helps convey a few impressions: magic is rare, it can still be powerful (the Zealot’s Commune asks their god questions, and the Mage can summon demons with Infernal Call) once you become its master, and not even the cosmically powerful want to wade into a fight if they can help it. All of those are reinforced by the fact that failing to land a spell means a trip down the Magical Mishap Table which can range from all metal nearby melting to a different spell being randomly cast.

This is also where we see the first bit of ‘convert 5e material to FTD material’ rules: while Cantrips should never deal damage, says the book, every spell that would be on a character’s list up to 5th level spells can be ported over as written, same for any other OSR spells you may find. That turns FTD from a single-book game into one with potentially quite the number of ‘sourcebooks’ to draw magic from.

One last thing that stood out: while magic items are limited per character by Charisma, and characters can only attune to one, the use of potions is highly encouraged, and scrolls and wands are highlighted (you don’t even have to be a Zealot or Mage to use wands). Something to think on.

NPC & Monsters

This chapter doesn’t actually start off with the bad guys: instead we begin with Retainers and Hench, the minions on the player side of things. Charisma is your stat for determining how many of each you can possibly attract to work for you, and you’re going to want at least some to carry your stuff and provide backup (or demon snacks). You need to pay Retainers, but they’re more plentiful, while the rarer Hench work for free and are generally considered as elite retainers. There are also rules here for the Renown of the PCs, which will help determine how NPCs react to them.

As for monsters, there are two broad flavors: converted, and newly created. 5e monsters can be run mostly as written (more FTD sourcebooks), although the book does advise dropping their HP by half to keep them scaled right to what FTD characters can deal with. Monsters from other games can be used as well: ones from games with ascending AC (the higher it is, the harder they are to hit) simply need to respect some AC and modifier caps, while ones from descending AC games like B/X have a formula to convert them.

When it comes to making monsters, the number of Hit Die (HD) helps determine . . . almost everything about the wee beastie you’re creating: HP, average damage, how much gold is in their hoard, and what their modifiers will look like for checks they’re going to be bad/average/good at. How do we know what they’re going to be bad, average, or good at? Well, monsters are broken out into categories. which dictate their abilities and even their behavior. A Leader is going to be weak at STR, CON, combat, being alone, and resistance, but is going to be strong with INT, CHA, magic, commands, and with minions. A Soldier is weak at magic, speed, lack of leadership, and stealth but excels in regards to STR, DEX, combat, morale, and unit discipline.

Seeing as how monster roles were one of the things that made 4th edition monsters so easy to run and build encounters with, I’m a little surprised, deeply amused, and very pleased to see them being mirrored almost 1:1 in an OSR project. There’s even a section on monster groups and tactics that provides advice on how to deploy monsters. A Standard group has a Leader, a Brute, and multiple Soldiers; the Brute charges in, the Soldiers open fire from a distance, and the Leader prioritizes where necessary. A Raid is a mix of Snipers and Predators, focusing on stealth, hit and run tactics, focusing their fire, and keeping the PCs away from the Snipers at all costs.

This might be my favorite chapter.

Running The Game

Sorry, nevermind, this is my favorite chapter. There’s some good advice on building the framework for an adventure, a random generator for determining what the threat for an adventure is (A Warlord wants to steal an Artifact, which will cause Famine), and a pretty clever random map generator based off of a Rubix cube (or a handful of d6s, if you don’t have one). The highlight for me, though, is the full page of Principles.

The Principles of FTD are thus: A Fair Challenge, Impact and Ingenuity, Meaningful Choices, Internal Consistency, Discovery, and Facilitating Play. The world of FTD is one that will kill its heroes if they don’t respect it, but the GM isn’t encouraged to actually go gunning for them. Being ‘brutally fair‘ is the name of the game, and the GM is told to reward cleverness and provide plenty of opportunities for players to tackle problems in different ways. Honestly, I’ve been in some OSR-style games where every door had a crossbow trap, and aside from feeling malevolent it was boring. Making it clear that FTD isn’t going to be doing that sort of thing makes a huge difference.

The last bit from Facilitating Play also stands out: “As always, ask your players questions, listen to their answers, and adhere to their requests for content safety.”


OSR really isn’t my usual stomping ground, but FTD caught my interest with the 5e link and kept it by sticking to its guns. It offers deadly combat, magic that is dangerous but awe-inspiring, adventuring where every hour of torchlight counts . . . without being needlessly brutal about it, with strong principles and a real sense of grabbing the best of its various source materials. It claims to not be about collaborating to tell a tale, and I get why they say that . . . but I’d argue that if you want to tell a story of hardscrabble adventurers scraping by in a dangerous world, making their coin and uncovering ancient secrets, Five Torches Deep is worth taking a look.

You can find FTD on DriveThruRPG in both PDF and softcover print-on-demand, and by the way that softcover is nice, very good quality that really makes the art at the start of every chapter pop.

Rally your retainers, repair your gear, and make sure you’ve taken stock of your supplies: this dungeon delve is going Five Torches Deep.

Thanks to Sigil Stone for sending me both a PDF and a softcover review copy of FTD!

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